Learnings from a hackathon with kids

The idea had popped up while we were working on a project about the future of television. Someone in the team had suggested that we hold a co-creation workshop with the actual users of the future. By the time I joined, this idea had grown into a full blown hackathon for kids — both to collect ideas and to teach them how to code.

We asked ourselves: How do we make kids interested in what we do? What’s the best way to teach kids to code? How do we engage kids in the design process?

How we did it

One Saturday morning, seven kids between 8 and 11 years old were invited to our office. This first test group consisted of the children of our apegroup colleagues and friends, accompanied by their parents. Our main goal was to have a fun day and make the kids curious about what we do. Well, we also hoped they’d start dreaming about becoming designers or developers one day. We also wanted to test many activities to see how they would work out. What’s fun and what’s not? What’s difficult? What’s too easy? It also felt important to let them do the real thing we do at apegroup — to code and design their own app.

However, Xcode is not a tool that you learn to master in three hours, not even if you are a curious 8 year old. So we prepared a simple memory game with two screens and a modal popup for the kids to customise and download to their mobiles.

The goal was not to let the kids make their own app, but to make them understand the principles of programming and the logics behind memory, so we started in the program Scratch. A developer showed how to build a simple memory game, step by step with Scratch building blocks, and the kids did the same on their own computers.

The next step was to let the kids design the app. We had prepared and printed wireframes of the app describing what parts the kids could customise — background and button colours, copy and sounds. They could use hand drawings, photos or images to design the memory cards. This created the freedom to make all kinds of memory themes, and resulted in a variety of different games: a fruit memory, a selfie memory and a Minecraft memory to mention a few.

Then it was time to implement design. The basic changes of copy and color were fairly easy for the kids to do in Xcode storyboard mode, but when we came to importing the right images or changing a sound file in the code they needed someone to help out. Luckily, most of their parents were developers that could step in and finish the difficult parts of the code. In the meantime the kids played with Dash and Dot — two robots that you program with Scratch building blocks on an iPad. Because the kids had tried out Scratch earlier, it was fairly easy for them to program the robots on their own.

Programming the robot Dash using Scratch on an iPad

Now the kids had their own custom designed memory apps. Still, we wanted to capture some ideas from the kids. At apegroup we often start projects with activities inspired by the Google Ventures design sprint. We decided to test it out with the kids. We gave them very loose instructions: “What kind of app would you do next time if you could decide all by yourself?” and started with “Crazy Fours”, a slightly simplified version of Google Ventures’ “Crazy Eights”. We asked them to sketch four different ideas in 5 minutes. After that, they got ten minutes to draw a storyboard for the idea they liked most. To wrap up the exercise we let everyone present their ideas. Most turned out to be game ideas: like the one where you select a character, feed it with something and watch the reaction. Example: Feed it with dynamite and watch it explode.

Game concept by Valter

How it turned out

So, how did our first hackathon for kids turn out? First of all, the kids had fun and so did we. Great success! We also confirmed that code and design is a good combo. After one hour in front of a computer, it’s nice to switch to pen and paper.

When it comes to coding we learned that it’s fun to design your own app so you can show it to your friends, but it’s not very important to take a deep dive into real code. Still, we believe it’s fun to get a glimpse of what’s “under the hood” and how an app is created. When we did the Scratch exercise it was clear that there is a difference between an 8 year old and a 11 year old. Most of the 11 year olds had actually played with Scratch before and had no problem following the instructions — their biggest concern was more time to explore on their own. The youngest kids needed close guidance from a tutor to follow up on the (not at all trivial) memory game algorithm. But they enjoyed it anyway!

How do we engage kids in the design process? Storyboarding gives time to focus on one idea and finish drawings. For another session it would be interesting to give them a real problem to solve.

After the event, we have been overwhelmed by parents, clients, school teachers and colleagues begging us to do it again. Hopefully we will!

How to do it yourself

  • If the kids don’t know each other, which was the case for us, it’s good to start the day with a get-to-know-each other-exercise. We let the kids throw the robot “Dot” to each other, telling everyone their names and favourite games.
  • Have at least one coder to lead code exercises and one designer to lead design activities.
  • If you create real apps in Xcode, it is best to have a couple of developers to help out, preferably one for each or every two children.
  • “Follow the teacher” is ok when teaching coding in Scratch, but mix it up with time for the kids to try out things and play on their own.
  • If you want to let the kids create and download their own app like we did — be prepared that you’ll need time to solve technical issues.
  • When creating design ideas, give the kids time to finish their drawings. Let them focus on one rather than many ideas.
  • Pizza is a good choice of snack, but not the ones with lots of vegetables on.

I work as an interaction designer at apegroup where I help companies create beautiful digital experiences. We are a digital agency in Hornstull, Sweden. Together we push boundaries through design of digital experiences, improving life for people. Want to know more about how we work ? Read more at our website.

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