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 Computer Science for All initiative in 2016. 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 from Fisher Price is a caterpillar that does different things depending on how a toddler sequences its segments ($50). Circuit Maze teaches kids to think logically about circuits with a series of 60 puzzles ($30). Makerbloks, arriving in summer 2017, are domino-size blocks with different functions. Kids as young as 6 can snap them together to tell stories or solve puzzles ($99).
Bots. Robots and droids can be fun for the entire family, but many models are expensive, delicate or tricky to operate. Exceptions include Makewonder’s Dash ($150) and Dot ($50), a couple of freestanding, kid-friendly bots that can be controlled through an app. Sphero sells several durable, rolling robots that will appeal to kids over 8, especially if they are Star Wars fans (starting at $80).
Apps. A wide variety of apps claim to teach coding to kids. Two of the better ones come from Hopscotch (gethopscotch.com). The program lets school-age kids use code to design games and create artwork. A simpler program called Daisy the Dinosaur is available for preschoolers (both free through Apple products). Kodable teaches coding practices by having 6-10 year olds maneuver furry, round aliens through 30 increasingly difficult mazes (free on multiple platforms). The Foos ask elementaryage kids to help cute characters solve problems that just happen to involve coding skills such as pattern recognition and sequencing (free on most platforms). Lightbot is a slightly more abstract set of puzzles that can be addictive for older kids (free on most platforms).
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 pixellated image. Capture the image on a smart phone, and an app helps you convert it into a game with characters and obstacles (kits start at $50). Bitsbox has a free website and offers a subscription service for elementary school kids (starting at $20 per month). Each month, kids get a box of new programming challenges along with stickers, small toys and trading cards.
Clubs. CS First from Google 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 and targeted to students in grades 4-8. 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. American Robotics Academy offers classes at several Austin-area schools. 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.com, a company that provides online training to adults by subscription, offers several free classes for kids. At Codecademy.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 for a monthly subscription (starting at $8 per month). Try the free apps, available for Android and Apple, before signing up.
Camps. Spring break and summer are great times to learn a new skill, and several camps will immerse kids in code. Fun 2 Learn Code offers spring break and summer camps at their Round Rock location. Bits Bytes and Bots runs summer camps at a variety of Austin area locations.
Just for Girls. In the past, boys gravitated toward programming more readily than girls. A number of organizations are trying to reverse that trend. Girlstart provides a variety of programs in Austin just for girls. MadeWithCode.com, a Google initiative, features exciting coding projects developed by young women. GirlsWhoCode sponsors tech clubs and summer camps for girls in the Austin area.
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. 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 their 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.