Block Coding Makes Learning to Program Simple and Fun

Millions of people are realizing the value of programming skills, but many still find it difficult to get started due to the difficulty and complexity involved. One trend that makes learning to code much more approachable is the rise of block coding. This approach makes program creation as easy as using your mouse to manipulate blocks on your screen.

Example of block coding
Source: Wesley Fryer / CC BY 2.0

What Is Block Coding, and Who Uses It?

Block-based coding is a type of visual programming that represents code as blocks on a graphical interface, as opposed to the text-based languages associated with conventional programming. Different kinds of blocks represent various constructs found in programming languages, such as conditional statements, loops, and functions.

You can rearrange these blocks using familiar drag-and-drop mechanics. Program behavior is typically customized by choosing different options from drop-down menus and filling in text boxes. New programmers can start tinkering with working “programs” right away.

This is a stark contrast to the high barrier to entry you find in many of the most popular programming languages. With some languages, you need to learn how to run a compiler, fiddle with a text editor or complicated IDE, and learn some fairly complex syntax before you can write even the simplest programs.

Useful for Young and Old Alike

The simplified, visual nature of block coding makes it especially well-suited for introducing children to programming for the first time. Languages such as MIT’s Scratch have become widely adopted in schools around the world and block-based coding has become the de facto standard way of teaching kids.

Block coding isn’t only for children, however. Adults from a variety of backgrounds can also benefit from a more accessible approach to learning. Some block languages aim to help the learner to make the transition to more standard languages as soon as possible. Others, such as Thunkable, make it possible to create real, functional apps entirely through a block-based approach.

Benefits of Block Programming

Great for Learning

Block-based programming greatly simplifies the program creation process, which makes it an excellent way for beginners to start learning. Programming concepts are abstract, and novice coders often find it hard to piece together different abstract ideas into text-based syntax.

Conversely, presenting these ideas as visual elements like blocks gives the learner something concrete to experiment on. Although they learn the same concepts as they would from a conventional language, blocks and graphical interfaces are easier to come to grips with.

Some platforms, like Google's Blockly, produce working code in a variety of conventional programming languages like JavaScript or PHP. This makes it possible to experiment with blocks and immediately see the result in your language of choice.

Block Coding Is Approachable

The complicated-looking syntax of traditional programming languages can be discouraging for anyone looking to learn for the first time. On the other hand, the simple visual interface provided by block-based languages is much more welcoming for both kids and adult beginners. As mentioned above, block programming normally involves well-known interface elements like drop-down menus, text fields, and drag-and-drop editors. These mechanics are similar to other common applications that users may be familiar with.

Negatives of Block Coding

Though there are many positives block-based coding, it isn’t suitable for every purpose.

Lack of Debugging Facilities

New programmers soon learn the importance of finding and fixing errors in their code, also known as debugging. Traditional programming languages have significant resources to aid the debugging process, often found in commonly-used IDEs or even built into the actual languages.

Block programming languages, on the other hand, do not usually contain much functionality for debugging. As your programs get larger, it becomes harder and harder to effectively debug them. This hints at another potential drawback of block programming: it’s not as useful for complex programs.

Less Suitable for Complex Apps

While the the block-based approach makes it easy to start programming, it starts to lose its effectiveness for applications of increasing size and complexity.

Dragging and dropping blocks is perfect for creating simple, easy-to-understand programs that combine a few programming constructs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t scale well. As you add more functionality, the number of blocks grows quickly, making it harder to keep track of everything. Moreover, the relationships between blocks become increasingly obscured.

Block coding with Blockly
Dave Braunschweig / CC BY-SA

How to Start With Block-Based Programming

There is a diverse range of block coding platforms to help you get your feet wet with programming. To find the right one for your purposes, think carefully about what you want to accomplish.

The most popular block language is Scratch, and it remains one of the best ways to get started. Although it’s oriented at children, anyone can have fun creating games and stories on Scratch while learning important coding skills at the same time. Even Harvard’s CS50 (Introduction to Computer Science) starts off by introducing students to programmatic thinking with Scratch before shifting gears to more complex languages like C. Snap! is a similar project from UC Berkeley.

Most people who start off with block-based coding intend to learn more conventional languages. If that applies to you, you’ll want to transition to text-based programming fairly quickly. Some block coding platforms are built to ease that transition by generating equivalent code in a chosen language. This lets you explore the relationship between blocks and text. Pencil Code is designed specifically for this purpose. Pencil Code uses the Droplet editor, which is meant to be a “transitional tool for beginners using languages like Scratch,” according to its author.

If you would rather avoid learning a text-based language at all, you can take advantage of block-based platforms that allow you to create fully working apps without writing a single line of regular code. Examples include MIT App Inventor and Thunkable.

Whatever approach you take, keep your goals in mind and remember to have fun!

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