Parenting tips for teaching kids to favor and learn from open source

Growing the next generation of open source hackers

Favouring open source.
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As a parent of three (children aged: 10, 7, and 5), I'm eager to share with my kids the values that attracted me to open source and the hacker ethos: sharing and building great things together, taking control of your environment, and embracing technology as a means of expression, rather than as media to be consumed. In other words:

How can grown-up hackers ensure that we're growing the next generation of open source hackers?

One of the things which I have learned is that you can go too fast. I put my kids in front of Scratch and Sugar at the ages of 8 and 5, and while they had fun changing the numbers on a simple program I put together, and liked drawing their own cars and driving them around the screen, they were really too small to get the concepts of linking functions together to produce more complicated behaviours.

Here are a few of the lessons I've learned as a parent which I think can be adapted to both the ages and interests of your children.

Hackable living space

We have encouraged our boys to decorate their rooms, organize the furniture as they see fit, and generally have thei rown little fiefdoms. This sometimes drives us nuts as parents, and we do regularly help them to tidy up, but their space is theirs.

Also, every kid above the age of 7 can have a real knife that they can use to whittle wood and cut twine.

Preschool engineering

I love toys that allow kids to use their imaginations. It's also great because as an adult I have as much fun as them playing with together! My personal favourite construction toys (purchased roughly by the age at which the kids have the motor skills necessary to play with them) are kaplas, wooden trains, sets from Duplo, sets from Playmobil, Legos, and Meccano cars. Lego and Meccano in particular do a great job of making kits for children of different ages. Another toy tip is to encourage mixing and matching between different toy sets. We have Kapla bridges over Ikea train sets and Lego trucks holding Playmobil characters.

Kaplas are very interesting too. They are very simple wooden blocks cut to very precise ratios; they are three times as wide as they are deep, and five times as long as they are wide. From those simple proportions, and the precision of the cuts for the wood, you can make some very complicated objects indeed, like an Eiffel Tower or Kapla house.

Getting started with electronics

We have an Arduino kit, and my eldest is starting to get to the stage where he understands wiring a circuit, but hasn't yet figured out programming in the Arduino dialect of C.

But even before something like that, arts and crafts activities are excellent training in DIY, and we always have some popsicle sticks or clothes pegs and a glue gun around for "do-it-yourself" gifts.

Then you can leave screw-drivers, pliars, multi-meters, and soldering irons around so that kids can take apart old toys or broken electronics, fix things with simple electrical circuits on their own when something goes wrong, and scavenge parts to be integrated in future projects. Parental guidance recommended with the soldering iron until they get the hang of it!

Teaching kids to hack

I would love to hear about resources for getting kids to programming proficiency! I am aware of Code Academy and Khan Academy for teaching kids code; and Scratch and Sugar, which I mentioned.

Please share your own personal tips on indoctrinating the next generation of free software hackers!

About the author

Dave Neary - Dave Neary is a member of the Open Source and Standards team at Red Hat, helping make Open Source projects important to Red Hat be successful. Dave has been around the free and open source software world, wearing many different hats, since sending his first patch to the GIMP in 1999.