Raising Kids Who Can Code

Over 600,000 computing jobs are available in the US, but only 43,000 computer science majors graduated last year. That startling statistic from code.org may explain why 9 out of 10 parents want children to learn computer programming.

Even kids who aren’t likely to choose programming as a career benefit from learning something about it.  Coding teaches kids to analyze problems, think logically, and be persistent about troubleshooting.   Getting results also gives kids a sense of accomplishment and confidence that they can make technology work for them.

Unfortunately, many K-12 schools don’t routinely offer coding classes. To correct that problem, the White House launched a CS for All initiative earlier this year. Parents can find out about exemplary school programs at digitalpromise.org and discover local programs in the “Learn” section of code.org.  You can also supplement what’s available at school with options like these:

Toys. Three-dimensional playthings can teach kids the kind of logical sequencing that is at the heart of programming. Code-A-Pillar, coming soon from Fisher Price, is a caterpillar that does different things depending on how a toddler sequences its segments ($50).  Makerbloks.com sells domino size blocks that have different functions. Kids, six and up, can snap them together to tell stories or create devices like a burglar alarm or a voice changing microphone ($125).  Circuit Maze from thinkfun.com teaches kids to think logically about circuits with a series of 60 puzzles ($40).

Bots. Robots and droids can be fun for the entire family, but many models are expensive, delicate or tricky to operate. Exceptions include Dash and Dot (makewonder.com), freestanding, kid-friendly bots that can be controlled through an app. Sphero.com also sells several durable, rolling robots that will appeal to kids over 8, especially if they are Star Wars fans.

Apps. A wide variety of apps claim to teach coding to kids. Two of the better ones come from Hopscotch (gethopscotch.com). Their signature program lets school-age kids use code to design games and create artwork. A simpler program called Daisy the Dinosaur is available for preschoolers (free, Apple products). Kodable teaches coding practices by having 6 to 10 year-olds maneuver furry, round aliens called Fuzzes through 30 increasingly difficult mazes by using visual arrow icons (free, multiple platforms, Kodable.com). The Foos asks elementary-age kids to help cute characters solve problems that just happen to involve coding skills such as pattern recognition and sequencing (free for most platforms, TheFoos.com). Lightbot is a slightly more abstract set of puzzles that can be addictive for older kids (free for most platforms, Lightbot.com).

Hybrids. Several interesting programs teach code with a combination of tangible objects and apps.   Bloxels has kids, ages 8-12, create video games by inserting brightly colored blocks into a grid to create a pixelated image. Capture the image on a smartphone and an app helps you convert it into a game with characters and obstacles (bloxelsbuilder.com). Bitsbox.com has a free website, but it also offers a subscription service for elementary school kids. Once a month, kids get a box of new programming challenges along with stickers, small toys, and trading cards.

Clubs.  Cs-first.com offers free modules that can be used in afterschool programs or summer camps.   The materials are built around Scratch, a coding language devised at MIT (scratch.mit.edu) and are targeted to students in 4th-8th grade. All you need to start a club is a willing adult and access to one Internet-enabled device for each club member.

Lessons. For children who develop a taste for coding, several organizations offer a more systematic way to become proficient. Code.org has links to “Hour of Code” projects that offer free one-hour tutorials introducing students to code. They also have a series of videos that help kids master basic algorithms and offer inspiration from master coders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Pluralsight, a company that provides online training to adults by subscription, offers several free classes for kids at pluralsight.com/kids-courses. At Codeacademy.com, teens who are motivated can master several programming languages through free interactive lessons. Finally, Tynker.com, a program widely used by schools, offers over 1,000 coding activities with kid appeal to families willing to pay a monthly subscription.  Try the free apps, available for Android and Apple, before signing up.

Camps. Summer is a great time to learn a new skill, and several camps will immerse kids in code.   IDtech.com offers camps exploring a variety of technical topics at over 150 locations, including many campuses with prestigious CS programs. Their website makes it easy to find an experience that’s age appropriate for kids 7-18. The Emagination program intersperses lessons in coding with more traditional camp activities. Information about locations and programs, including a popular Minecraft session, is available at computercamps.com.

Just for Girls. In the past, boys gravitated towards programming more readily than girls. A number of organizations are trying to reverse that trend. Madewithcode.com, a Google initiative, features exciting coding projects developed by young women. Girlswhocode.com sponsors tech clubs and summer camps for girls. And Girldevelopit.com offers supportive women-only classes in 52 US cities.

Stuff around the House. CSunplugged.org promises to teach kids some of the basic concepts of computer science through games and puzzles that use inexpensive materials like cards, string, ping pong balls, and crayons that are probably lying around your house. The site which is popular with educators includes downloads and videos explaining how to make use of the materials.

With so many options available, every parent should be able to find a program or project that matches your child’s age and temperament as well as the family’s schedule and budget. So what are you waiting for? Get your kids coding now!

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs.  She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is about to publish a book called Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.  Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.   @ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs.  All rights reserved.