Face it, we all have something in us that wants to be in control sometimes. We want to be the puppetmaster, making the universe bend to our whims. It's what fantasies of all kinds are made of. And, whether we realize it or not, it's what nearly all creative arts. But most people, especially educators, have a hard time associating computer programming with creative arts. Why is that? Perhaps it's because of the domains where computing technology came from - accounting and theoretical mathematics. Both fields are typically defined by straightforward procedures and precise answers, the antithesis of creative arts. And most people would frankly not call either of those things, "fun."
But computers are a lot different now than they were half a century ago, and they are part of every area of our lives. It also doesn't take a lot of advanced knowledge to be able to create applications that are both useful and fun. When making a new program today, we have a lot of flexibility in how we do it, which leaves a lot of room for creativity. For someone who has never tried to make their own program before, and comes from a more creative background, I would recommend cutting your teeth in an environment called Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu). For starters, it doesn't look like a programming language. It looks more like a multimedia designer, with sprites, backgrounds, music, and animations being the primary focus.
The social aspect of Scratch is probably what makes it as successful as it is. While MIT hasn't really done a very good job of explaining the "What is it good for?" and "How do I use it?" questions, there are many other web sites that fill that gap. One in particular I was very impressed with is consultant Dick Baldwin's (http://www.dickbaldwin.com/homeschool/Hs10000.htm). In future blog entries, I'll show examples of how Scratch can be integrated into a lesson to improve reading, writing, public speaking, creative art, social studies, and a host of other skills in addition to the expected math and problem solving skills expected in a 21st century classroom. In some studies, the use of computers has helped improve the academic performance of exceptional learners.
Even if you aren't a teacher or in a classroom, learning how to create increasingly complex Scratch projects is at least as great a way to maintain mental acuity as a regular dose of crossword puzzles or learning a foreign language. And because it's on the computer, it can be a great way for the older generations to connect with their children or grandchildren by working on a project together. And when it comes to a cheap hobby, the only investment you're making is your time.
If you've never considered making your own computer programs before, or thought it was too hard or something just for geeks or kids, I strongly encourage you to give Scratch a try. You may find a lot of your earlier notions "byting" the dust.