This Fun Tool Teaches Kids To Program With Pictures

It’s like Codecademy meets Colorforms.

Do you ever feel pressured to know how to code? With so much buzz surrounding DIY programming courses like Codecademy, Treehouse, and Code School, it’s easy to forget that the best way to learn something is to frame it as, y’know, fun. Isla, a new toy programming language from Mary Rose Cook, feels about as intimidating as a bag of Duplo blocks, and makes “coding” feel as visual and consequence-free as playing with a Lite-Brite.


Isla isn’t going to wow any venture capitalists or get Michael Bloomberg bragging on Twitter. It’s not a course; there’s no “goal,” no way to pass or fail. It’s a toy, and looks the part: Upon launching, Isla offers you two choices–“Shapes” or “Planets”–drawn in stark Colorforms-esque graphics. From there, Isla presents two boxes: one for writing instructions (or “programming,” in adult-speak), another for seeing the results. “Write cherry is a circle below,” it asks. You do it. Poof: a blue circle appears. Wait, blue? Not what you were expecting? Exactly. That’s when Isla starts to get fun.

What’s brilliant about Isla is that its toylike simplicity–natural language, simple shapes, clear instructions, instant feedback–co-exists with a spartan respect for the realities of grown-up coding. Like the fact that, with all due respect to Scratch and Kodu, most programming still happens in plain text. The box where you type instructions into Isla looks just like a command line, and acts like an IDE (integrated development environment): If you get some syntax wrong, it’ll reject your code with an error message. The difference is that the error messages are in plain english, and gently invite you to think about what you need to change in order to get it right.

What’s more, as you follow Isla’s intentionally rote instructions, you’ll naturally start to wonder how to push its boundaries. When Isla asked me to change the color of a circle for the fourth time, I did something different–but still correct according to the rules I’d learned. And poof: Isla responded to my whims, just like a real programming language would. That’s a self-directed learning experience that feels much more empowering and reinforcing, in a Montessori school kind of way, than getting a badge for jumping through some hoops in Codecademy.

Which is not to say that Isla is good, Codecademy (or Treehouse, or Scratch, or any of the others) are bad. What’s wonderful about the explosion of these teach-yourself-coding tools is that before long, there will be so many that it’ll be impossible not to find one that clicks exactly with your own idiosyncratic learning style. Isla, like Logo long before it, is just simple enough and just visual enough to get a young kid (or *cough* a 35-year-old design writer) interested enough in what makes programming cool without getting in its own way. Now excuse me, I have to get back to deciding whether to program shapes or planets…

[Play with Isla here]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.