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This Google engineer’s book teaches kids to code using paper, not screens

The book, which launched on Kickstarter Tuesday, also seeks to give greater representation to kids of color than traditional programming texts.

This Google engineer’s book teaches kids to code using paper, not screens
[Image: courtesy of Little Hackers]

Little Hackers, a book from Google engineer Brandon Tory that launched on Kickstarter Tuesday, is designed to teach kids to program computers without requiring them to actually put their hands on one.

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Tory says he came up with the idea for the book when his son was about 6 years old, after a colleague at a 2019 holiday party mentioned learning coding around that age. He says he couldn’t really find resources designed to teach children that age to program—most learning-to-code apps and toys were aimed at kids starting around age 9, or required extensive adult supervision—but realized he could explain some of the basics simply using pen and paper.

“I can just write up a little bit of code and walk him through what it means on graph paper,” he says.

Brandon Tory [Photo: courtesy of Little Hackers]
That insight led him to create Little Hackers, which is essentially a workbook focused primarily on reading and interpreting code, not writing it, and figuring out what a computer will do, given certain instructions.

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While the book doesn’t require a computer or a specialized iOS or Android app, it does include augmented reality (AR) features, such as 3D-animated characters and hidden answers to problems, which can be accessed by scanning QR codes from the book with any modern smartphone. But the overall Little Hackers approach is to limit required screen time, so the book doesn’t require hardware beyond a phone and kids don’t need to use the AR features to learn from the book.

That lets kids focus on thinking through the problems involved in making a computer do what they want without having to worry too much about the details of actually typing code into a machine or getting it to run. It also lets parents or instructors know that kids are actually studying, not playing games or are otherwise distracted on their computers or phones, Tory says.

[Image: courtesy of Little Hackers]
“I know from my own experience as a kid, the first line I ever read in a coding book was ‘Think before you code,’ and that stuck with me my entire career,” he says.

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The code used in the book is loosely based on Python, a language commonly used for both teaching and professional work, though Tory says the syntax isn’t the only important thing the book teaches.

[Animation: courtesy of Little Hackers]
Tory, who is Black, says he also set out to create a book that would offer more representation of children who look like him and his son than typical computer books. “I was unable to find a book like this that had children of color on the cover,” he says.

Tory, who is also a musician, says the paper-first approach could also potentially work for teaching music by helping kids read and understand sheet music and what it means, rather than jumping straight to putting their hands on an instrument.

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[Image: courtesy of Little Hackers]
“The goal you really want at a young age is, can you read music?” he says. “Can you understand the fundamentals?”

Tory says he wants to get more feedback on the book through direct-to-consumer sales, then continue to improve it and potentially release more in the series and get them into schools. His son, he says, has already moved on to more advanced material and is actually writing code on the computer.

“At this age, he’s now outgrown the first book,” Tory says.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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