Trying to teach a child to play Solitaire… not as easy as I thought

I have less time than usual this morning, since I had to drop my mother off for her monthly hospital appointment, in the opposite direction to work.

This was my latest Facebook status, which I’ll repeat here, and quote it to make it stand out…

Last night was round one trying to teach Josh to play Solitaire. Went with Klondike in Windows because it is most similar to the version I used to play.

Then he didn’t seem to get that the piles on top are piles and start with aces, because you can only see the top card. So I showed him how to play with actual cards.

THEN he offers to give me another deck of cards to make it easier. Took a while to get through to him that it would be cheating.

So I explain how and why we got stuck, and he asks why we can’t UNDO like in Windows…

So tonight will be round two. Hopefully I can get him to understand better this time. I think the game will help him, at least get his synapses firing a little faster. He should be able to master the game – I know I did from around his age.

Interestingly, there is one major difference between the implementation of the game on Windows, versus the one I play with cards… The spare cards pile (forgive me for not knowing what these things are called – I learned the game as a child and never read any actual rules) where you deal them in groups of three… When I deal three cards each time, I deal the set face down on top of each other, then flip them over to reveal the first card of the three. So they go face up on the pile. This means that every time I deal a set of three, I swap the order of those three. This gives you a slightly different order each time you go through those cards. (Even if you don’t pick a card, this gives two different permutations of the spare deck, assuming they are a multiple of three.) Plus of course, as soon as you remove cards, this results in more of those spare cards being accessible. This makes the game slightly easier than the one in Windows, which just takes sets of three and does not change the order.

I play the game fast, because I’ve played it for many years now, and I tend to either see the choices of moves I can make very quickly, or not see them at all. With Josh I have to slow down the game and prod him… “Can you see any moves you can make?”. I lack patience (which is ironic because I always called the game “patience”) and it makes teaching him more difficult than I’d like it to be.

I was highly amused when he asked me, seriously, why we can’t undo… The computer spoils us a bit, I suppose. To someone so young, or someone who has never implemented an undo stack in a program, maybe the fact that being able to undo requires the computer to recall all previous states, is not obvious? I had to explain to him that unless one of us had a photographic memory, we would never be able to undo more than a few moves.

Knowing the difference between the actual game, and a computer implementation, where the computer can record every move in a stack and be capable to rolling them all back, is something that’s still beyond the grasp of my son. I don’t think I’m a good teacher though… I don’t have much of a feel for the limit of his understanding, to know where his understanding of abstractions ends and more explanations need to begin.