As you read this, you’re staring at words placed strategically on the screen of a digital device using lines and lines of computer code. In order for you to read these words on a magical Wi-Fi wonder device, a team of engineers had to sit down and figure out what they wanted the device to do. They had to work through the multiple ways they would go about designing and implementing the application. Using problem-solving, innovation, and hard math and computer science, engineers had to create vast amounts of software. Software is used in everything from the cars we drive to the phone games we play while waiting in line.
Yet there’s a severe lack of students being exposed to programming. Code.org reports 9 out of 10 high schools in the United States don’t offer computer programming classes. And 31 of the contiguous U.S. states won’t accept computer science toward high school math or science graduation requirements. Put simply, young minds are not getting enough exposure to skills they need for one of the fastest-growing job markets today.
Because their minds are quick to take in and commit new information, children should be taught the basic concepts of coding. Coding arms them with a new creative outlet. Coding also gives them a new way to explore their abilities and provides them with invaluable problem-solving skills. And it’s never been easier for children to get access to a host of resources teaching the how-tos of coding.
What is Coding?
Coding is the process of using a specific computer language to direct inputs and create virtual infrastructures. It’s the process that tells Mario to jump when a button is pressed. It tells Minecraft blocks to crumble when they’re hit by a pickaxe. It tells apps to boot when they’re tapped. And it tells websites to direct someone to a new page when you’ve clicked a button in the navigation bar. Coding is how we give computers instructions to create and execute on the things we want.
Why is Coding for Kids Important?
As software becomes omnipresent, the number of available jobs for software engineers and programmers follows suit, rapidly growing into a lucrative and secure career path. But a lack of interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs through public schools means students aren’t getting the exposure and experience they need.
“STEM fields are not only in high demand, but they also are quite lucrative, [often] paying a good starting salary,” explains Karen Thurm Safran of coding camp organization iDTech. “Students today don’t realize the extent of STEM careers, and they typically have a misperceived view of what it entails.”
According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a computer programmer in 2012 was $74,280 per year. According to those statistics, the lowest 10% earned $42,850, with the highest 10% earning more than $117,890 annually.
“STEM jobs are growing at 1.7 times the rate of non-STEM jobs, and the U.S. is simply not producing enough candidates to fill them,” Thurm Safran says, adding that Department of Education statistics reveal only 16% of high school seniors are interested in pursuing STEM-related careers.
Speaking during Computer Science Education Week 2013, President Barack Obama called on young people to learn computer science and technology to help both themselves and the country stay on the cutting edge of technology. He explained why teaching kids the basics of programming is so important. When we teach kids how to code, we give them a brand new way to understand and interact with the technology all around them.
“Don’t just buy a new video game; make one,” he said. “Don’t just download the latest app; help design it. Don’t just play on your phone; program it.”
When kids are able to look under the proverbial hood and better understand what makes their favorite games, apps, and software programs work, they learn to appreciate technology in the world around them. Coding is not just a skill for kids who want to pursue programming as an eventual career, either.
CEO Mary Maloney of the Coderdojo Foundation recently shared her theory on why coding is useful and even essential for everyone. “I believe every child regardless of gender or background should have a chance to give it try,” she said. “Coding hones math and language skills, builds problem solving, analytical thinking, and logical reasoning abilities. It also fosters the most incredible innovation and creativity in our kids.”
Thanks to the different devices we have available today, programs, apps, classes, and toolsets are easily accessible to all levels and types of learners.
4 Ways To Help Kids Learn Coding
You can help kids learn to code through simple tablet applications, online resources, coding camps, and video games that incorporate programming concepts.
One of the best ways to start introducing kids to programming is through a coding app on iOS or Android devices. The touchscreen interface of a tablet is something most kids are familiar with. Some of these apps will allow kids as young as 5 to begin tinkering with basic programming concepts.
Daisy the Dinosaur is one such example. It’s a minimalist app aimed at younger children. It teaches how to program behaviors into a character by providing a set number of responses Daisy will execute.
Hopscotch is a similar application that expands on this idea. It gives a slightly older crowd the tools to create their own small games and upload them to share with others. Hopscotch and Daisy the Dinosaur don’t go in depth with coding specifics, but they give kids a great handle on the basics of design and programming.
Other apps like Tynker and Cargo-Bot are a bit more challenging. They’re geared toward older kids who have a better grip on the basics. These apps have more specific challenges and command sets for users to work with. The touch interface makes them accessible and easy to use.
Once they’ve had a chance to explore the basics, kids can turn to the Internet to find a host of resources about programming. YouTube video tutorials walk users through basic processes step by step. Browser-based languages allow more free-form creation of games and animations. And online courses give more in-depth breakdowns of the basics.
Scratch is a particularly useful language for older kids and teens. Created by a research team at MIT Media Labs, Scratch is an easy-to-use coding language for making small playable video games and animations. It’s free to use. A number of video tutorials make it easy to get started.
Khan Academy has been widely renowned for its programming classes, mainly because of how in depth each lesson gets while remaining accessible. A video-based resource, Khan Academy offers its entire curriculum completely free of charge.
Codeacademy is a great resource with interactive lessons that give users of all ages the skills they need to program in basic languages and even create and design their own websites.
Codakid offers a variety of coding courses for a monthly subscription fee. The courses are geared for kids, and you can try them free.
Udemy also has a variety of coding classes for kids.
Camps can be difficult to find for those outside major metropolitan areas, but summer camps and workshops are a great way to get kids interested in programming. Kids get to work in groups with a small teacher-to-student-ratio. They’re also able to meet other kids with similar interests and use their learned skills to work on projects together.
A wide variety of camps appeal to all different groups of children. The aforementioned Coderdojo and iDTech are open to kids of all identities and skill levels. More specialized camps and programs such as Girls Make Games, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code specifically aim to inspire young girls and women to take an interest in STEM-related fields. The West Coast of the United States has become something of a haven for these camps, but many of them are starting to travel around the country.
You don’t necessarily have to learn the basics of programming and design from places created specifically to teach it. Many video games now contain the ability to create what is called user-generated content. These games often feature options allowing the player to create their own levels, games, and encounters using the very assets and tools implemented by the developers.
These games won’t teach kids how to code, but they will expose them to the basic concepts of programming. In Mario Maker on the Wii U, players design levels using sets of bricks, pipes, and enemies found in the various Mario universes. Project Spark on Xbox One and Windows is centered on the idea of allowing players to create their own games using the behaviors and characters created for the game itself. And LittleBigPlanet is a cute and charming platforming game that provides the tools needed for users to craft their own levels in whatever way they want.
A lot of these games feature the option to share individual projects online, meaning players will both have their work available for others to play with and can gain inspiration from the works of others. No matter what, creating things in these games is likely to create a loop of interest, feeding kids’ creativity and giving them the keys to unlock their own virtual worlds.