I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

Kids Coding Interlude: the function game

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Since the kids have been back at school and we’ve been busy with work and some home renovations, I unfortunately haven’t had a chance to continue much with the kids coding training. However, when discussing the general topic of education at Functional Conf, the topic of “the function game” came up, and I wanted to share what we did. I found this a great—and perhaps vital—pre-training for Haskell.

The function game is simple: I pretend to be a function, let the kids give me input, and I give them output. They need to try to figure out what the function is. Here’s an example conversation:

Me: When you give me 1, I give you 2. When you give me 2, I give you 3.
Them: What if I give you 5?
Me: 6
Them: 8
Me: 9
Them: You’re just adding 1!

With each kid, I’ve always started off with addition. I’ll later get into identity, but that one is (perhaps surprisingly) more confusing for them. Multiplication by 2 is a good follow-up to addition. Then, when they get comfortable with discovering a few of these, I’ll throw in:

  • f x = x * 2 + 3
  • f x = x (identity)
  • f x = 5 (constant)

We’ll typically play this game at the dinner table. At some point I’ll also actually define a function for them, after they’ve already experienced some success at guessing what I’m doing:

It always gives the same output for the same input

The next curveball I introduce is different types:

Me: When you give me “apple”, I give you 5
Them: What?
Me: Functions don’t just work on numbers
Them: OK…
Me: When you give me “book”, I give you 4
Them: It’s the number of letters!

After that, each time I tell them I have a new function, they’ll ask me the type of the input. As a Haskeller father, I couldn’t be more proud :).

I’ll also teach them about functions of multiple inputs:

Me: When you give me 2 and 3, I give you 5
Them: What?
Me: Functions can take more than 1 input.

And after a few more examples, they figure out that I’m just doing addition.

I think I tried demonstrating partial function application by saying “when you give me 2, I give you a new function you can play with.” But I don’t remember if I actually did this, or if I just planned it. And since I’m sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for a cab, I can’t test out the theory on them right now.

Anyway, I hope this proves useful for others trying to teach their kids (or maybe non-kids!) either math or functional programming. If you try it out, please let me know how it goes.

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