Kano – Coding for Kids (of all ages!)

Recently my Kano arrived that I had backed a while ago on Kickstarter. Kano is a computer that you make yourself. When I backed this originally it looked like a good way to package up a Raspberry Pi computer to make it more human friendly. (The Pi is great but the original vanilla version were a lot of linux messing around to get working, that was of course early days).
Kano has packaged up a Raspberry Pi and provided a lovely collection of kit that allows you (or your kids) to get this small computer up and running.

The kit comes in a cardboard box, but it is a box with a flipped magnetic lid so it is more of a case really. The most striking piece is the orange wireless keyboard with built in track pad. This on its own is a great piece of kit. Small and very handy. It has a USB cable folded into the back of it, but this is just for charging it. It’s very nice indeed. My previous PI’s I used a full size wireless keyboard I had. It always seems wrong when the input device is soo much bigger than the device itself.
The instructions are written in two books one for assembly and one for getting coding. For this I tried to let predlet 2.0 just follow those himself to see how they worked.
I did help with a bit of clipping the case in but that was really just me itching to see all the elements.

After the build you are left with a Pi in a clear case (with some customisation panels) an attached speaker and several cables. HDMI for the TV and a a power lead. It comes with a ready prepared operating system on an SD card and with a wifi wireless dongle too.
We plugged into one of the gaming TV’s and away predlet 2.0 went. There was of course the obligatory patch, this took a little while but there were a set of screens to read about computing and how it all works.

As you can see, whilst you have the BIOS style boot screen initially after that it is all very slick looking and more like a computer they will have been used too. It is not all command line hacking.
The user creates a name and then an online account with Kano. This gives access to all sorts of things and a sort of scratch like repository of shared programming experiments. It is also very much like an xbox or playstation account. There is an avatar, customisable of course. There are also lots of points and badges for achievements using the system. This seems to work well to get past those initial possibly confusing stages.
Predlet 2.0 say the minecraft logo and wanted to dive straight into that. For once though I insisted he worked through the book as I wanted to see how it gelled with him.
The first task is a little unusual in that it asks the user to get an ASCII version of snake up and running via the command line. It then explains this basic game has lots of sets of parameters and being able to type –help etc on the CLI. This is a skill that is needed but this almost would lose a lot of kids right away. The achievements system does a lot to mitigate that. I grew up on CLI’s I still have to use them. Hitting them with this first of all to get the potentially boring bit out of the way makes sense too. I still was little disappointed by that bit but Predlet 2.0 battled on.

The remaining tasks involve diving into the visual programming Kano blocks. The example uses a version of pong and then gets the user to use the programming blocks to drag onto the workspace and change how things operate. The lessons are good and cover a range of techniques. This was certainly more fun. Kano blocks looks and acts like Scratch which is handy as Predlet 2.0 had some experience tinkering with that. It does also point out that you can see the Python code that blocks generates, this is a good thing as whilst CLI’s may not be great IMHO getting to real code is essential at some point. Visual composition has come a long way but having both views of the code is much more useful.
After pong we dived into the minecraft version. The Pi being a smaller machine means its not going to have the draw distance and world size of a PC or Xbox but it is instantly familiar to most kids.
The screen is split horizontally, almost like a two player game would be.
The top half is Minecraft, moving around building with individual blocks. The bottom of the screen is a Kano Block version of a console. Here the lessons show how code can be run to alter the world. Normally in Minecraft you build a block at a time. Predlet 2.0 was instantly amazed when he did a draw command and loop in Kano blocks that created a 20x20x20 block. One of the other examples creates a long think wall of stone and then a thinner wall of air inside generating an instant tunnel. That was powerful. Because of the scratch he had done and the hours of Minecraft on every platform predlet 2.0 had a bit of a eureka moment I think. This was the real level of understanding of the power of programming. I only got that at 14 when it suddenly dawned on me, but home machines were somewhat rarer.
Now we have a £99 kids friendly machine, something that was the aim of Raspberry PI but they could only go so far sorting out the hardware. Kano is a package and an experience. It does protect from some of the hacking needed, but that is its point. Get them in, let them play then they will learn to hack and code.
We spent about 3 hours straight on this, and I am looking forward to the next session we have. There are some instructions on using VNC and remote access into the device so that an ipad screen can be used.
This kit should be in every primary (and secondary school) right now!

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