When Brian Franks was growing up in the ’80s, programming computers seemed like an activity best left to the engineers at IBM. But since his 10-year-old, Ella, got hooked on code last year, the Pittsburgh dad has come to see programming in an entirely new light.
Ella now uses code almost daily to build digital games and projects on her iPad. When the fifth-grader can’t solve something by herself, she researches videos or looks up other people’s projects. “Programming has allowed this curiosity and sense of confidence to grow,” says Franks.
At its most basic level, coding is the process of giving a computer a set of clear, specific instructions, such as ones to move an image on screen. And since code is what makes a digital device run, understanding its language means a kid can turn into an active, rather than passive, consumer of technology, says Mitchel Resnick, Ph.D., professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab.
Besides giving kids an introduction to the design process that’s involved in building apps and websites, coding helps them develop important school smarts like problem-solving, critical thinking, and the ability to collaborate with peers. Later, these skills can translate into all kinds of future opportunities in the world of science and technology, or really any other field.
Your job (and your kid’s teacher’s)? To help her understand that the tools she’s learning to master with coding can carry over into other parts of her life, explains Elliot Soloway, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan’s School of Education. For example, a coding game may encourage your kid to solve a puzzle through trial and error. But showing your child how that strategy can be applied when you figure out why a fuse blew can really help her process that knowledge.
Ready to help your child embrace her inner geek? We found out what kids can handle at every age — and what tech choices are best.
Coding for New or Nonreaders
Until they’re about 6, many kids struggle with abstract ideas. Stick with apps and games with simple rules, instant results, and, most importantly, ones that make room for you, too.
Don’t worry that your child won’t take to coding. “Kids tend to have an intrinsic interest in creating something that is interactive,” Dr. Soloway says.
Skills Kids Can Build
Many learn-to-code tools provide rudimentary introductions to programming concepts like debugging (identifying and fixing mistakes) and sequencing (where one action leads to another in a predetermined order). But some of the most important skills 3- to 7-year-olds can pick up now are social (like turn-taking and sharing) and psychological (experimentation and learning from mistakes). “In programming, failure is free: You can always delete and always try again,” says Dan Shapiro, a former Google exec.
Get kids started on computational thinking by going offline with Robot Turtles (ThinkFun, $25, ages 3 to 8), a board game Shapiro created. Players move colorful turtles around the board by “programming” them with a set of command cards. But while the kids choose the cards that dictate whether the critters go forward, right, or left, parents are the ones actually executing the commands.
Kids learn the basics of coding logic as they help a cute robot in Lightbot (iOS and Google Play, $3, ages 4+) and blue fuzzballs in Kodable (iOS, in-app purchases from $2 to $6, ages 6 to 10) navigate increasingly complex sets of mazes. They also learn notions like looping (issuing commands that repeat numerous times).
If your child hungers for strong storylines as he plays, Cato’s Hike (iOS, $5, ages 5+) is a good choice. He can drag and drop commands to guide his character to jump past obstacles, collect rewards, and rescue friends. As he becomes a savvier player, he’ll pick up more sophisticated tools, such as if/then commands.
ScratchJr (iOS, free, ages 5 to 7) is a scaled-down version of the popular visual programming language Scratch. Kids tap on graphic “blocks” of commands and “snap” them together like puzzle pieces in order to design their own animated characters, games, and stories.
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Tools for Readers and Writers
Coding for the 8- to 10-year-old set really means learning to create almost anything — and, ideally, doing it alongside others. Because tweens are able to read well, comprehend abstract concepts, and focus their attention for longer stretches, they can navigate more complex programs. Still, keep your eye on the clock. While building a greeting card is more creative than playing Mario Kart, it’s still wise to strike a balance between on- and offline activities.
Skills Kids Can Build
Older grade-schoolers can learn such coding principles as variables (symbols for a piece of information or a value that can change) and cloning (the act of making copies). Along the way they’ll pick up some trigonometry and algebra as well.
Coding also imparts helpful habits of mind like perseverance and collaboration, explains Samantha John, CTO and co-founder of Hopscotch. “Plus, it teaches kids how to think algorithmically — in other words, how to take a formula and apply it to similar challenges. Kids learn how to break down problems to solve them successfully.”
With Tynker (iOS or Google Play, free, with additional $2 in-app purchases; ages 7+), kids drag visual coding blocks to solve puzzles and move on to the next level. If your child doesn’t succeed, a pop-up will appear with hints on how to find a solution more efficiently.
In addition to the visual coding tool Scratch (iOS, free, ages 8+), tweens can try Hopscotch (iOS, free, with additional $1 in-app purchases, ages 10+), another full-powered visual program that enables kids to build everything from virtual dodgeball games to animated music videos with colorful and intuitive drag-and-drop instructions. Both allow your child to post his creations online and get feedback and guidance from other children all over the world. Talk about collaboration!
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Going Beyond Software
When they build a computer or program a robot, kids get tangible evidence that their commands matter — cementing the connection between actions and the abstract concept of coding. These products help them make that leap:
Dash is a sensor-enabled robot that moves, talks, and even sings when a kid taps the illustrated icons on the companion app (which comes in three levels that age up). Makewonder.com, $170, ages 6+; Dot and accessories sold separately.
Raspberry Pi 2 is a card–sized computer that works like a basic PC when plugged into a monitor and keyboard. Kids can use it for electronic projects (think music-making machines and robots) or as a learn-to-code tool. Raspberrypi.org/products, $35, ages 8+
The Kano computer is made for kids who love to tinker. Yes, it’s pricey, but the bright orange kit lets a child construct and program an entire computer by breaking each task into manageable steps. Kano.me, $150, ages 6+
Photo Credit: by Zoe Berkovic