function – How do JavaScript closures work?

As a father of a 6-year-old, currently teaching young children (and a relative novice to coding with no formal education so corrections will be required), I think the lesson would stick best through hands-on play. If the 6-year-old is ready to understand what a closure is, then they are old enough to have a go themselves. I’d suggest pasting the code into jsfiddle.net, explaining a bit, and leaving them alone to concoct a unique song. The explanatory text below is probably more appropriate for a 10 year old.

function sing(person) {

    var firstPart = "There was " + person + " who swallowed ";

    var fly = function() {
        var creature = "a fly";
        var result = "Perhaps she'll die";
        alert(firstPart + creature + "n" + result);
    };

    var spider = function() {
        var creature = "a spider";
        var result = "that wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her";
        alert(firstPart + creature + "n" + result);
    };

    var bird = function() {
        var creature = "a bird";
        var result = "How absurd!";
        alert(firstPart + creature + "n" + result);
    };

    var cat = function() {
        var creature = "a cat";
        var result = "Imagine That!";
        alert(firstPart + creature + "n" + result);
    };

    fly();
    spider();
    bird();
    cat();
}

var person="an old lady";

sing(person);

INSTRUCTIONS

DATA: Data is a collection of facts. It can be numbers, words, measurements, observations or even just descriptions of things. You can’t touch it, smell it or taste it. You can write it down, speak it and hear it. You could use it to create touch smell and taste using a computer. It can be made useful by a computer using code.

CODE: All the writing above is called code. It is written in JavaScript.

JAVASCRIPT: JavaScript is a language. Like English or French or Chinese are languages. There are lots of languages ​​that are understood by computers and other electronic processors. For JavaScript to be understood by a computer it needs an interpreter. Imagine if a teacher who only speaks Russian comes to teach your class at school. When the teacher says “все садятся”, the class would not understand. But luckily you have a Russian pupil in your class who tells everyone this means “everybody sit down” – so you all do. The class is like a computer and the Russian pupil is the interpreter. For JavaScript the most common interpreter is called a browser.

BROWSER: When you connect to the Internet on a computer, tablet or phone to visit a website, you use a browser. Examples you may know are Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari. The browser can understand JavaScript and tell the computer what it needs to do. The JavaScript instructions are called functions.

FUNCTION: A function in JavaScript is like a factory. It might be a little factory with only one machine inside. Or it might contain many other little factories, each with many machines doing different jobs. In a real life clothes factory you might have reams of cloth and bobbins of thread going in and T-shirts and jeans coming out. Our JavaScript factory only processes data, it can’t sew, drill a hole or melt metal. In our JavaScript factory data goes in and data comes out.

All this data stuff sounds a bit boring, but it is really very cool; we might have a function that tells a robot what to make for dinner. Let’s say I invite you and your friend to my house. You like chicken legs best, I like sausages, your friend always wants what you want and my friend does not eat meat.

I haven’t got time to go shopping, so the function needs to know what we have in the fridge to make decisions. Each ingredient has a different cooking time and we want everything to be served hot by the robot at the same time. We need to provide the function with the data about what we like, the function could ‘talk’ to the fridge, and the function could control the robot.

A function normally has a name, parentheses and braces. Like this:

function cookMeal() {  /*  STUFF INSIDE THE FUNCTION  */  }

Note that /*...*/ and // stop code being read by the browser.

NAME: You can call a function just about whatever word you want. The example “cookMeal” is typical in joining two words together and giving the second one a capital letter at the beginning – but this is not necessary. It can’t have a space in it, and it can’t be a number on its own.

PARENTHESES: “Parentheses” or () are the letter box on the JavaScript function factory’s door or a post box in the street for sending packets of information to the factory. Sometimes the postbox might be marked for example cookMeal(you, me, yourFriend, myFriend, fridge, dinnerTime)in which case you know what data you have to give it.

BRACES: “Braces” which look like this {} are the tinted windows of our factory. From inside the factory you can see out, but from the outside you can’t see in.

THE LONG CODE EXAMPLE ABOVE

Our code begins with the word function, so we know that it is one! Then the name of the function sing – that’s my own description of what the function is about. Then parentheses (). The parentheses are always there for a function. Sometimes they are empty, and sometimes they have something in. This one has a word in: (person). After this there is a brace like this { . This marks the start of the function sing(). It has a partner which marks the end of sing() like this }

function sing(person) {  /* STUFF INSIDE THE FUNCTION */  }

So this function might have something to do with singing, and might need some data about a person. It has instructions inside to do something with that data.

Now, after the function sing()near the end of the code is the line

var person="an old lady";

VARIABLE: The letters var stand for “variable”. A variable is like an envelope. On the outside this envelope is marked “person”. On the inside it contains a slip of paper with the information our function needs, some letters and spaces joined together like a piece of string (it’s called a string) that make a phrase reading “an old lady”. Our envelope could contain other kinds of things like numbers (called integers), instructions (called functions), lists (called arrays). Because this variable is written outside of all the braces {}, and because you can see out through the tinted windows when you are inside the braces, this variable can be seen from anywhere in the code. We call this a ‘global variable’.

GLOBAL VARIABLE: person is a global variable, meaning that if you change its value from “an old lady” to “a young man”, the person will keep being a young man until you decide to change it again and that any other function in the code can see that it’s a young man. Press the F12 button or look at the Options settings to open the developer console of a browser and type “person” to see what this value is. Type person="a young man" to change it and then type “person” again to see that it has changed.

After this we have the line

sing(person);

This line is calling the function, as if it were calling a dog

Come on singCome and get person!”

When the browser has loaded the JavaScript code an reached this line, it will start the function. I put the line at the end to make sure that the browser has all the information it needs to run it.

Functions define actions – the main function is about singing. It contains a variable called firstPart which applies to the singing about the person that applies to each of the verses of the song: “There was ” + person + ” who swallowed”. If you type firstPart into the console, you won’t get an answer because the variable is locked up in a function – the browser can’t see inside the tinted windows of the braces.

CLOSURES: The closures are the smaller functions that are inside the big sing() function. The little factories inside the big factory. They each have their own braces which mean that the variables inside them can’t be seen from the outside. That’s why the names of the variables (creature and result) can be repeated in the closures but with different values. If you type these variable names in the console window, you won’t get its value because it’s hidden by two layers of tinted windows.

The closures all know what the sing() function’s variable called firstPart is, because they can see out from their tinted windows.

After the closures come the lines

fly();
spider();
bird();
cat();

The sing() function will call each of these functions in the order they are given. Then the sing() function’s work will be done.

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