Last Thursday I ran a conference called Kids Adore Ditch. It started life as a request from one of my kids.
“My son asked if he could come to work with me this half-term. So I thought why not turn that into an event? Bring Your Kids to work. That is – come along, learn a bit of code and play with robots. Or for the more craft inclined just come along and make and draw robots.”
A couple of weeks later and we had about 35 kids and 30 parents in the Village Hall playing and learning together. My friend Dan Light came along with his awesome daughter. He is one of the best writers I know, so for an excellent roundup post I recommend you check out The kids are alright (it’s the robots you want to watch out for.)
Operate an Arduino-controlled robotic arm… manipulate the real world using Minecraft… steer a car with a smartphone… pilot a quadcopter using bananas. Yes, bananas. Now see your drawing digitally enhanced by Dan Matthews. Take a crash course in coding with Scratch. Program cars to win races, and spaceships to reach home planets, before watching light-sensing robots find route-one along a maze of black masking tape.
The first thing that strikes most people when they see a quadcopter in action is its phenomenal grace and poise. That’s because the first quadcopter most people see isn’t being piloted by young children cutting their teeth on a banana-based quadcopter guidance system.
In his post Dan documents all the activities we laid on for the kids – flying an AR drone, Code Rally, “a free, open source racing game with a twist – instead of racing around a track using a controller you write an AI (Artificial Intelligence) to race for you!”, the Liberty Car, driven by browser, the Lost in Space physics game and a robot arm (all staffed by a young super enthusiastic team from IBM’s Hursley Labs), Romilly Cocking’s splendid maze solving robots, Minecraft running on a raspberry PI, connected to sensors in the real world (thanks Neil c Ford), Learning to code with Scratch hosted by Linda Sandvik, and of course Dan Matthews’ digital art corner. And of course the lovely folks from Project Cuato, with their code learning/robot fighting game hackitzu. Romilly was particularly interested in the child development angles at play.
It was fascinating to see how the different age groups reacted. Four-year-olds could press the buttons, and understood the difference between the line-follower and the maze solver. Six-year olds were impressed at the way that the maze-follower’s second run on a learned maze went straight from start to goal. They quickly grasped the issues raised by the third looping path, and several of them were confident enough to demonstrate and explain the robots to other kids and/or their parents. By eight, they wanted to experiment and try out the robots in different starting positions. One came up with the idea of dynamically changing the maze with slips of white card covering the black line, and another wants to build his own robots. Everyone did well and had fun. There were slightly more girls than boys, and they were every bit as confident and competent – great to see.
I have to admit I am still feeling proud of running the event. It’s the best thing I have done in some time. Unlike most achievements, which I seem to immediately put behind me, this one really stuck. Being able to feel unambiguously like a good father, but also doing something cool at work at the same time – how often does that happen? The thing that I keep coming back to about the day was how quiet it was. Of all the things I expected, quiet certainly wasn’t one of them. The children in attendance were rapt. Wonder was written on every face. And lunch was good enough to keep everyone quietly eating. I also wanted to quickly mention the philosophy game we played, channeling Race Against The Machine – Good Robot/Bad Robot. I showed a bunch of images of robots and asked the kids whether the droids in question were good or bad. We had a tremendous discussion, and all the kids from 3-12 made a contribution. As I told them- it’s up to all of you to make sure we use Robots for good. What did I learn? Kids are perfectly willing to think of robots as having emotions, which lead them to do “bad” things. Hai the Future! Anyway, I had a fantastic time, and we’ll definitely do it again. Thanks to all volunteers and my staff at Shoreditch Works.