Teaching kids to code

Teaching kids to code

Everyone knows that teaching kids to code is important, but where do you start? There are so many different apps to choose from but how can you tell the difference between the good ones and the ones that are just useless games?

I love writing code and it’s something I want to share. For me it’s part of giving back. Over the years I’ve introduced hundreds of kids to coding. First my own children and then volunteering at local Perth primary schools with my company Westpac bank. Over this time I’ve used every app, game and tool imaginable. Seriously, I’ve used everything you can find.

In this article I’m going to show you the great ones.

Write an algorithm with Lightbot

Algorithms are at the heart of how computers work. Understanding algorithms is important because it gives kids an intuitive understanding of why robots and computers think differently than people.

Source: Lightbot.com

I like to use a game called Lightbot. But it’s not a just a game. The developers of Lightbot are pretty clever and they figured out a way to take fundamental computer science skills and wrap them in an addictive game. It’s like wrapping a vegetable in ice-cream, but not disgusting.

Source: Lightbot.com

Lightbot presents kids with a series of puzzles that they solve by using analytical skills and procedural thinking to write algorithms.

I couldn’t tear my kids away from it. Lightbot uses classic game elements to get kids hooked and then guide them through the educational experience. Things like levels, high scores, visual and audio feedback, progressively increasing difficulty, unlocking new abilities and so on.

Because of the familiar game elements, kids probably won’t need much help from grown ups. All you have to do is install the app and before you know it they’ll be writing some pretty advanced algorithms. The app really does have some great computer science content. Check out this level.

Source: Lightbot.com

Honestly it’s about as complex as any code a professional software developer writes in their ‘real’ job.

You can install Lightbot for a few dollars on any Android or iOS device. There’s also a free demo you can play in the browser on a computer. Find out more here.

Tell a story with ScratchJr or Code.org

Did you know that one of the biggest reasons young people don’t choose careers in technology is because they think it’s dry and boring. I’m always baffled by this. To me technology isn’t boring, it’s interesting and creative. People who create technology change our world.

Source: Lightbot.com

So how can we show kids how fun and creative technology can be?

Kids love stories. They make stories with words, pictures, toys and just about anything they can find. I’ve even seen my kids act out stories with their own feet. It’s just how kids are wired, they think in terms of character and narrative.

We can show them that code can be used as a new medium for creating stories. Apps like ScratchJr and Code.org make it easy to setup scenes, add characters and act out stories with a visual block based programming language.

Here’s a scene from ScratchJr of a cat meeting his friend at the beach then going for a swim.

Source: Lightbot.com

Most kids will need a grown up to help them get started with these apps. Just create a simple story with them to show them how to create a scene, add characters and add programmed behaviour. For one primary school class I showed the kids how to make a rabbit yell, hop and run away when you tap on it. After that, the kids knew enough to start making amazing creations of their own.

You’ll love seeing the crazy stories kids come up with.

Source: Lightbot.com

ScratchJr is for kids that are 5–7 years old and is available for free on any iOS or Android device. You can find out more here.

Code.org is better for slightly older kids and is available online from any computer. You can find out more here.

Make a website with CodePen

Every child should make a website. These days, learning how websites are made is just part of preparing for life. Almost everyone will make a website at some point, either for business, politics, or a personal blog. Understanding how websites work empowers kids in one of the most important arenas of the modern world. In the age of fake news, when kid’s see how easy it is to make a website, they will start to understand why they shouldn’t believe everything they see on the internet.

Now this is a bit difficult if you don’t have an adult handy who knows programming. Fortunately the basics of web development are pretty simple. Here is a link to a blog post I wrote about teaching my 7 year old daughter to make her first website. I think even grown ups who are new to web development will be able to follow along and learn at the same time as the kids they’re teaching.

In the post, I use Codepen. Codepen is great for teaching because it lets you to skip the annoying parts like creating files and just dive straight into writing HTML and CSS code.

Source: Lightbot.com

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly kids start to understand HTML and CSS code. It turns out that it’s one of the most immediately creative way for kids to code. From the first keystroke, everything they type happens right away and looks right. Kid’s love expressing themselves and I think HTML and CSS get that just right. Here’s what my daughter made.

Source: Lightbot.com

CodePen is free and runs in the browser on any PC. You can find out more here.

The conclusion

Teaching kids to code is so much fun and it really has the power to change lives. I just think the world would be a better place if everyone knew how computers think, that code is creative and how to participate as citizens of the global web. I hope you’ve found some ideas in this post that you’ll try out with the kids in your life.

Press “♥” if you liked this post. If you have something you like doing to teach kids how to code, let me know in the comments below.