Everyone knows about the push to bring ‘coding literacy’ to kids across America (and the world). We don’t need to recap it, or track how it’s grown – that’s already been done by many. What we should talk about is what it actually means and how it works, because at first glance the idea of coding literacy for children seems, well, grandiose. We don’t expect our 6 year olds to start building websites, or for Google to track the progress of middle school coding prodigies like big Universities do with emerging football stars. So what is coding literacy for kids, and how do we achieve it?
The first and biggest obstacle to getting kids interested in programming is the mystique that surrounds the profession. We’ve all heard the stories of famous programmers like Sean Parker, who ran into trouble with the FBI in his teen years for hacking Fortune 500 companies. The men and women who’ve become famous in this industry all seem to have a special sort of genius that’s unattainable for the everyday person – so much so that it’s not even worth trying. And the fact that most schools lack introductory courses for kids only reinforces the perception that, well, it’s incredibly difficult to learn programming. The first key part of achieving coding literacy for kids is to break down this perception.
This is where organizations like Code.org have come in and done a fantastic job. As is almost always true when it comes to kids, the best way to create interest around a subject is to make it fun. Programming in and of itself doesn’t quite compare, at least in the mind of the average kid, to playing tag, throwing the football around, or diving into the newest Xbox game. Kids like fun and kids like games, which is why Code.org’s ‘Hour of Code’, along with software like Scratch, created by the MIT Media Lab, has been so successful.
Video Games Help Teach Coding for Kids
In the 21st century the popularity of video games, for both kids and adults, has exploded. But kids don’t think about the programming beneath the surface of their favorite video game. They don’t realize that when they push their joystick up to move their character forward, they might as well be hitting ‘run’ on a program written to move it forward. That same program will be setup so that the character can jump while running, or turn while running, or anything else. That’s what the people at Code.org, Digital Dream Labs (creators of ‘Cork the Volcano’), and elsewhere are doing – essentially taking away the controller to reveal the program. With Code.org specifically, there’s a tutorial where you have to move an ‘Angry Bird’ to get to a ‘Silly Pig’. Rather than using a controller, kids drag blocks in a sequence that instructs the Angry Bird to move forward 2 spaces, turn right, and move forward another space – then they hit ‘Run’.
The value of this kind of gaming for kids can’t be overstated. Code.org and others are taking something that once seemed impossible to many people (kids and adults) and making it seem fun and achievable. If you can give your kid this kind of positive experience with programming early on it will make a future attempt at a computer science education, and even career, seem that much more possible. See an image from 'Tynker' below for an idea of how these games work.
Before we break down how to achieve coding literacy for kids further, let’s take the time to define it. As I said above, we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) expect kids to start building websites or creating apps. The real goal should be giving kids the skills necessary to learn programming, and the belief that they can learn. We’ve already talked about the groups that are helping give kids that belief – now let’s look at how to give kids the right skill sets.
Lest anyone think that a focus on helping their kid to learn programming, or preparing to learn it, will have a negative effect on their ability to learn and succeed in other areas, consider the following quote from Bill Gates: “Learning to write programs stretches your mind, and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains”. The skills necessary for a programmer, like problem-solving and logic skills, discipline and attention to detail, and the ability to cope with failure are extremely helpful in every subject and for life in general. So even if your kid doesn’t become the next Dennis Ritchie don’t worry, you’ll still see the benefits.
Unsurprisingly, the way to give kids the skills they need for programming and beyond is the same as the way to make programming seem possible – play, fun, and games! According to businessdictionary.com, computer programming is defined as “the process of developing and implementing various sets of instructions to enable a computer to do a certain task”. Don’t worry though, the best way to practice this is not to pretend to be a computer and let your kid boss you around.
Code.org's tutorials, as well as new digital games like Cork the Volcano (pictured below), The Foos, and board games like Code Master, teach these skills exactly. Rather than moving your game character with a joystick you set out the instructions in a step by step fashion, and then ‘run’ the program.
Code Master in particular does a great job of getting past the basics and into more complicated computer science principles. The game uses processes like conditionals and ‘do-while’ loops to make kids think that much harder about how their programs have to run. For example, you can lay out the path for your avatar to walk the first 3 steps, but the 4th step will depend on where you are on the game board. Kids have to learn how to plan ahead more effectively in order to solve the more difficult challenges – a crucial skill for little programmers.
Learn more about Code Master by watching the video below, or click to read the 5 Things You Need to Know About Hour of Code. And remember parents - make programming fun!