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Bitsbox: Monthly Coding Projects in the Mail

If you are a parent with one or more easily bored children, Bitsbox is a great product to try. Your kids will have lots of fun typing code, learning how code works, and doing stuff like using code to steal cows or blow up hamburgers.

If you’re an easily bored child, then you probably know how to use your charm and annoying behaviors to ask your parents to please, please, please buy Bitsbox for at least three months. You definitely want to try to use code to steal a cow or blow up hamburgers over and over and over and over again. It’s only normal.

Every month Bitsbox delivers a colorful booklet of code ideas and code samples. Their website lets you use the booklet to create apps by typing code into their website. When you have an app you want to share, use a QR reader app (the booklet explains what this is and where to get one) to transfer it to your phone.

While the process is slightly convoluted, it is very clever and fun. Once I signed in to their website, it took me a moment to realize the instructions at the bottom of the page were to be typed at the top of the page, next to the numbers. But once understood, it was easy to run through all the code to do stuff like blow up the moon (target.tap = explode).

The real joy, however, is using the website interface to type in the code from the monthly booklet. You click the New App button then enter the four-digit code listed above the game title in the booklet. Then you type the code. Bitsbox provides all the images and sounds.

Equally interesting is what happens when you don’t type the code exactly as printed in the booklet. You get a somewhat inscrutable error. Which sends you to the booklet to line by line study what you might have got wrong in your code.

This is similar to what happens in real life programming. Many errors are difficult to understand. Debugging code is about developing a process to whittle down all possible causes of an error until you find the error. This is a very useful skill in coding and life. Your persistence, in this case, is rewarded with a fun game to play.

Typing lots of code also help you learn how to code. With the Paul Bunyan game, for example, it’s easy to see how the gotcha in the game — you can get stuck by being too far away from a tree to chop — is calculated because you type in the message. The function you code checks to see how far Paul Bunyan is from a tree you click to chop down and, if the tree distance from Paul is greater than some number, the message “Too far away!” displays. If the tree distance from Paul is not greater than some number, Paul is walked over to the tree and he chops it down.

There’s also detailed help for teachers and parents which kids can access, too, to help them with their projects.

Getting an app on my phone did take some time. First, the unique QR code for a game is found by clicking the < (share) icon in the top right corner of the page. The QR scan of the code brought up the Safari web browser on my iPhone 5S with its shorter screen. However, a banner ad at the bottom of the screen interfered with the green left arrow button used to start the game. The game worked fine although my Paul Bunyan shrunk after the first tree he chopped. Copying the URL for the game into the Chrome browser on my phone, however, worked perfectly. Unfortunately, on iPhones the Safari browser is the default. Bitsbox also lets you share your game by email, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. So I'd recommend you email yourself (and your friends) your game and then open the link in the Chrome browser on your phone (which you probably should download anyway on your phone). The top right corner of the Bitsbox web page also is where you'll find the two squares icon which opens a pop-up with all the assets you can put into your game — fills, stamps, colors, sounds, songs, and commands. And if you hover your mouse over the screen on the left side of the web page, you'll see Bitsbox tells you the x and y position co-ordinates to help you target locations with your code. My Bitsbox also included a real life slinky, probably because one of the games you code this month involves a digital slinky. But the stickers also were really neat, something any kid would enjoy putting on their gear, themselves, siblings, and possibly parents. Or keep to look at because the artwork for the booklets and the stickers is really beautiful and interesting to look at. There is one question I had about the Moon Blaster game. If you use the UFO stamp, and the stars as fill background, then click the UFO and it explodes, is there really smoke in space? Doesn't smoke require an atmosphere? Otherwise, I found Bitsbox to be a very fun, educational, and clever way to introduce kids to programming. I suspect lots of parents will have fun, too.

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