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Why we’re excited by Swift Playgrounds

Apple's new iPad app, announced at WWDC 2016, promises to teach a new generation how to code

By anyone’s standards, coding isn’t exactly easy to get acquainted with – and even more so for a child. That’s why Apple’s Swift Playgrounds app is a genuinely exciting idea that could soon usher in the next era of developers and coding enthusiasts.

The app is a free download for the iPad and features an array of basic coding lessons and challenges. For children it offers the perfect mix of both fun and education, with an array of colourful characters on hand to guide them through their coding journey step by step. During the unveiling, an array of games and animations were showcased, all aimed at keeping budding coders raring to learn.

“I wish Swift Playgrounds was around when I was first learning to code,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering. “Swift Playgrounds is the only app of its kind that is both easy enough for students and beginners, yet powerful enough to write real code. It’s an innovative way to bring real coding concepts to life and empower the next generation with the skills they need to express their creativity.”

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Each lesson within Swift Playgrounds has been specifically designed to help children come to terms with core coding concepts, such as creating basic functions, performing loops and accounting for variables. Being able to simplify each lesson down to the basics is Apple’s way of hoping that the lessons will be able to build confidence and skill levels in children. Of course, Apple will also be hoping for involvement from parents, keeping their child engaged and motivated to continue the course.

In addition to the set of lessons built into Swift Playgrounds, Apple will be releasing regular challenges, where they can compete to set high scores and also put what they’ve learnt to the test, without it actually feeling like an assessment. Also included is an array of built-in templates, aimed at helping young coders to express what they’ve learnt in their own time. Templates can be customised in a wide variety of ways, whether it’s by editing the core code to add graphics, or perhaps by even implementing their own interactions. Essentially, they put the control in the palms of the budding coder. There’s also some prominent social features included within Swift Playgrounds, aimed at getting young coders to work together to resolve problems, increase their imagination and improve their skills.

“The new Swift Playgrounds app from Apple is one of the most powerful, yet approachable, educational coding apps we’ve ever seen, and we can’t wait to incorporate it into our upcoming camp curriculum,” said Jean MacDonald, founder of App Camp for Girls. “It’s a fun and intuitive way for our students to learn the basic principles of coding using the iPad, and also become skilled in Swift – a language that can grow with them in whatever they choose to do.”

Once the young coder has built up a repertoire of coding skills, they can then take what they’ve learnt to the next level. Swift Playgrounds provides a blank canvas for coders to build their very own app, powerful enough that it can be then used with the iPad’s accelerometer and Bluetooth connection. Because Swift Playgrounds uses real Swift code, projects and apps can be transferred into Xcode, which can then be used to turn their creations into fully featured apps ready for submission to Apple.

We should also mention the benefits of using the iPad for Swift Playgrounds. Its multi-touch display is perfect for the app’s coding keyboard, which gives access to the most commonly used coding symbols, with a shortcut bar also included that works in the same way as predictive text. You can also drag and drop a series of common coding symbols from a pre-built library by Apple, enabling users to speed up their projects and avoid the manual typing of symbols altogether. It’s of course optional, but Apple reckons it’s a great way for kids to experiment with their creations, without having to rely on long typing sessions to fix their mistakes.

Simplicity is certainly key when it comes to developing for Swift Playgrounds, but at its very core, that’s what it’s all about. Getting kids enthusiastic and excited about coding is a tough task, but from what we’ve seen from Swift Playgrounds so far, it could be the winning formula needed to steer the new generation of coders in the right direction.

A preview release of Swift Playgrounds is available now to members of the Apple Developer Program in the iOS 10 developer preview. The final version of Swift Playgrounds is set for release on all iPad Air models, iPad Pro models and the iPad mini 2 later this year as a free download.