Sam Patterson has Kindergarten students who can describe variables. The funny thing is, they don't exactly know they're doing it.
Patterson is a technology integrator for Kindergarten through 5th grade at a school in California. Thanks to the iPad app Kodable, which teaches pre-literate kids the basic concepts of programming, those Kindergarteners can explain back to him the idea that a symbol can mean one thing on one level, and something else on the next.
"Here you've got a kid who can't yet read who is articulating the nature of variables better than some of the students when I was teaching 6th and 7th grade algebra," he said. "The first time that happened I was just like 'Wow.'"
Kodable is a programming game created by Louisville, Kentucky natives Grechen Huebner and Jon Mattingly.
The premise is kids have to direct little alien fuzz balls on paths, and collect coins along the way, using arrows as commands. The fuzz don't know anything and need all the direction they can get. It's colorful, cute, and according to Patterson, fairly addictive for his students. After he introduces the game in class, it's not rare that kids go home, get their parents to download it, and finish the game on their own.
Originally, Huebner and Mattingly had different plans. They were going to found an online marketing startup, but one topic kept popping up in their conversations with people— parents wanted their kids to learn how to code but had no idea how to go about it.
"It was scary because we'd spent so much time developing our initial idea and we were going to completely switch gears into education," Huebner said.
They started with research in child development to determine at what age kids begin thinking logically and would be able to start grasping the concepts behind programming. The initial prototype had eight basic levels. After testing it with kids from 3 to 8 years old, they figured out a target age range, and built out 60 levels before releasing it in the App store in 2012.
The idea to make it an iPad game came from the thought that iPad touch screens are easier for small children to manipulate and don't require the motor skills needed to work a keyboard and mouse.
Something else kids don't need to play Kodable is the ability to read. The game is self-guided and features a voiceover that prompts kids when a new concept, like loops, is introduced.
While Kodable was originally intended for home use, Huebner said the longer it was in the app store, the more requests they got from teachers about purchasing for the classroom. By the summer of 2013, Kodable joined Imagine K12, a tech accelerator in California geared toward education.
"They connected us to a lot of great teachers out here who were able to give us more feedback and figure out how we can make this something really powerful tool for educators," she said.
For someone like Patterson, who has the task of figuring out how to bring together young kids who can't read and concepts that make many adults queasy, finding Kodable was a stroke of good luck.
"I was just blown away because there it was. All of the logic that's in computer programming without any of the literacy requirements that I thought existed," he said.
He has also used it to teach other social lessons, like how to work through problems and how to work with other people, as different students find different levels of the game challenging or easy.
"What we want is we want students who are brave problem solvers and communicators and not waiting for adults to do things for them, so my whole focus on tech integration is using that tech integration experience to build other skills that kids need," Patterson said.
Going forward, Huebner said they plan to make Kodable accessible online as not everyone has an iPad.
"We want to make programming accessible to everyone, something that can be fun and exciting to learn because it's a very creative skill and you can impact a lot of people with these capabilities," she said.
For now, Patterson's students seem to be having a good time as is.
"There's just something really rewarding about teaching fairly complex concepts but using a platform that makes kids do fist bumps in class," he said.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.