My 9 year old girl is going now to an HTML summer camp. This was her choice, rather than, say, horseback riding or “molecular cooking”, mostly due to the influence of a friend (a girl too, mind you). Needless to say I was shocked by this choice: of all things related to computers, HTML syntax seems the most useless for humans to learn. And, yes, they are really learning to write these little HTML tags themselves — in notepad.
I have to admit that I’ve changed my mind. This is the first exposure that she has had to a formal language: some strange syntactic set of rules that has an attached semantic meaning. It is empowering: you can write some symbols and it does something that you intended it to do. You get immediate feedback, and can fix things if they are wrong. It is the first time that she sees why you need to follow the rules — otherwise it just won’t work. This is in contrast to what usually happens in school where all the rules for organizing her notebooks or homework may be safely ignored unless the teacher “catches” them. (Example: The way she solves is , where the point is that it’s wasteful to copy the integer parts when you’re doing the common denominator.)
Now this friend of hers is really into scratch, which is real programming, and my own daughter seems to be getting into it too. Even though I did accidentally mention that scratch is programming, this didn’t seem to turn them off or appear “un-girly” to them (in fact my daughter’s first free association with programming was the Segway and free ice cream that she’s seen in Google). Starting to program may turn out to be another benefit of HTML summer camp.