A Parent's Guide to Teaching Coding for Kids

A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Coding for Kids

There is no question out there that computers, mobile devices, and other technology are now part of our everyday lives. Each generation of young people becomes more and more ingrained into this technological culture that has developed, and there are no signs that it will stop anytime soon.

As such, it is no surprise that, in order to prepare younger generations for the future, many parents are looking to teach their kids STEM skills. This includes coding for kids, as programming is one of the backbones that forms every piece of software we interact with. However, for parents not versed in coding, this can be a monumental task. Even for those who are versed in it, coding for kids isn’t simple, as the way an adult would learn is a bit different than how a child would learn.

Nevertheless, and despite the challenges, coding for kids is still a hot topic, and one you may want to pursue anyway to help kids build a brighter future. In this guide, we will strive to help you get started on this venture and provide information about how you can go about teaching coding for kids. Further, for those a bit skeptical, we will also discuss why you should help kids learn to code. So, if you’re ready to enrich some young lives, let’s get started.

Kids and parents surrounding a computer

Why should kids learn to code?

As stated above, before teaching coding for kids, you may wish to know why it is a topic worth pursuing. While there is an exhaustive number of reasons why the skills can benefit both you and kids, we’ve broken this down into five key points below to highlight the benefits that we think people will be most interested in.

Enhances math skills

As a STEM field, it should be no surprise that coding generally involves a lot of math. The complexity of the math can vary quite a bit, from simple addition to track scores, to calculating device screen size to rearrange UI elements, or to creating full-blown simulations that involve things like logarithms. All the standard operators we know off, meaning addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, greater than, less than, etc., are all integral to learning how to code – thus kids’ exposure to math will increase tenfold by learning the skills.

Beyond just the exposure to math, though, coding for kids teaches math skills in a much different way from the classroom. Rather than focusing on getting kids receiving information and calculating the answer, coding teaches kids to work backwards and think about what they need to do to arrive at a correct answer. Do they need to add values together to get a score? Subtract values to calculate damage? Coding forces this kind of thinking, which in turn reinforces for kids the practical application of how they’d use math in everyday life. In so doing, it turns the abstract into more tangible tasks kids can understand, thus improving their overall ability to interact with math in general.

Graph showing a function line

Enriches creativity

In contrast to the above, and despite common misconceptions, coding can actually boost kids’ creativity. Unlike fields like math, which have a rigid structure and purpose, coding for kids offers a lot of freedom. While there are rules, coding syntax, and so forth coders have to follow, these are not the main focus of coding. Rather, coding is focused on solving problems, or, in a different light, creating something from nothing.

Coding allows kids to make a ton of different things, from games, to their own websites, to educational mobiles apps, to programs that automate certain tasks on the computer, and beyond. This is truly a field where the sky is the limit. So, while kids will learn structures and rules, they will also be empowered to create whatever they might want. Perhaps they want to create a platformer, or maybe a webpage that promotes animal conservation, or maybe they just to make an app that helps them memorize a second language. Coding for kids is a topic that asks kids to think outside the box, and then shows them how to bring those ideas into reality.

Improves problem-solving

Above we mentioned that at the heart, coding is about solving problems. The sorts of problems coding faces range greatly in complexity depending on what level you’re looking at your problem from. For example, perhaps your problem is that a game about tiny robots doesn’t exist, so you plan to make a platformer of your own to solve this problem. From there, your problem becomes how to make this program and what it consists of, so you solve it by planning out players, enemies, level design, and more. How do you make those things, then? Well, you’ll need to code movement for your player, jumping, etc.

This sort of problem breakdown is what coding is all about, and the more you do it, the easier solving problems becomes. As such, when it comes to coding for kids, these are the sorts of skills they’ll be taught indirectly. They’ll develop ways to break down their problem into manageable tasks, and find ways to bring everything together at the micro-level to solve the macro-level problem. Plus, this sort of problem-solving will have a direct impact on real-life scenarios kids face too, providing skills that can benefit them in all aspects of their life.

Teaches collaboration and communication

While coding alone is certainly possible, it is equally possible (and more likely in the professional world), that coding will be done as a team. Most development involves several people at least, whether this is because it needs a lot of coders, or whether it’s because the project involves coders, artists, and other sorts of roles.

If structured correctly, coding for kids can teach team-building skills for collaboration and communication. Much like most group projects in school, it is achieved by giving kids a similar goal that forces them to work together to achieve that goal. Unlike many other group projects though, where the goal is a bit abstracted from how it works in the professional world, the skills learned for working as a team with coding are generally directly applicable to real development. Plus, coding projects are often more fun for kids than the standard group project at school, so these important skills will be ones they learn without even directly knowing it.

Provides in-demand skills for the future

Last, but certainly not least, coding for kids is a skill that will help them with their future professional lives. Coding skills are one of the most in-demand skillsets right now, whether for game development, web development, data science, mobile app development, or something else. Almost all fields of technology require coders to function, and with technology only increasing in presence, adults and kids alike benefit from knowing how to code.

This being said, it is worth noting as well that coding is not limited to fields of technology. Many innovators out there are learning to apply coding to their own fields. For example, many in the medical profession are learning how to develop programs to help with physical therapy. Thus, whether a kid wants to go into a STEM field or not, coding can have a major boost for their careers regardless – even if they eventually want to go into business for themselves.

Kids putting hands and feet into a circle on grass

Tips for teaching coding for kids

By this point, we hope you have a good idea of why coding for kids is beneficial, whether that be preparing them for the future or just boosting real-life skills that will serve them as they navigate the obstacles of life. Next, though, we want to discuss how to teach coding for kids, as there are many different approaches to doing it. So, if you’re looking for some tips, dive right in.

Learn the basics yourself

Before teaching coding for kids, you might consider it a good idea to learn a bit yourself. Now, this in no way needs to be exhaustive – certainly, no one expects you to become an expert developer in just a short time amid your busy schedule. Still, kids will have questions at first, and being able to answer them will make the whole process of learning a lot easier.

What should you focus on though? Besides coding principles and maybe basic language syntax, which we’ll talk more about later, the important thing is to brush up on your vocabulary. In this way, you’ll be able to understand enough that you can help your young student Google their questions.  Rest assured, even full-time developers spend a lot of time Googling for solutions, so the more you know which vocabulary to use, the easier time you will have finding those answers. Below, we’ve included a few resources to help out.

Resources

Person staring at computer screen

Start with board games

Board games and coding can actually have quite a bit in common. Both involve sets of rules that need to be carefully planned out so that when the players execute their actions based on those rules. Everything needs to be balanced, loopholes need to be closed, and, ultimately, the game needs to be designed and balanced from the ground up. The mindset surrounding both activities is similar, so it shouldn’t be surprising many game designers start developing their games first by making a tabletop version of it.

When teaching coding to kids, especially younger kids, starting them off with creating a board game is a great way to form the foundational creative habits they’ll need to start coding their own projects. In so doing, kids will learn the basics of creating rulesets to achieve the sort of gameplay they want to see, and get hands-on experience problem-solving how to get their mechanics to work.

Further, there are also some board games out there you can play with your kids designed to teach these same habits if you don’t have time to make one. We’ve included a variety of tutorials below to help you take those crucial first steps.

Resources

Plan out specific times for practice

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. The more you do something continuously and in a regular fashion, the more it sticks with you. However, we’re all guilty of procrastinating at one time or another. Even when we know that studying every night is better than a cram session, we still cram for that one test tomorrow because we put it off. Kids are definitely no different.

Unsurprisingly, coding for kids is going to be a time investment that will require rigorous practice. Thus, when teaching kids how to code, it is good to plan out a strict schedule to follow. This has many different benefits:

  • It puts aside time so you can arrange your busy schedule around it
  • It ensures coding is being practiced regularly
  • It helps students mentally prepare for the session and puts them in the right mindset
  • It allows you to track progress

So, all in all, make sure to provide structure for coding sessions so kids get in that regular sort of practice – which is a tip that works for adults as well!

Day planner with some dates highlighted in yellow

Make it fun

In contrast to the above, don’t forget that coding for kids should be fun. While an increasing number of schools are adopting coding programs into their curriculum, there are still many that choose to forgo this and stick to the traditional sorts of subjects. As such, it is likely kids will be learning to code in their free time as an extracurricular. Trust us, the last thing kids want to do after school is to have more school.

So, while a schedule is good, always make sure kids are having fun with what they’re learning. How this is achieved will vary from kid to kid.  However, some common ways to make things fun are:

  • Giving rewards for achieving milestones
  • Focusing on projects kids are interested in (like games)
  • Providing kids a way to see how their efforts apply to real-life
  • Setting up groups where kids can interact with other kids learning to code
  • Emphasizing interaction over lectures

While there are many more ways to make it fun, kids will receive these skills better if they enjoy the process of learning.

Focus on visual scripting and “codeless” frameworks first

Learning coding can be tough as, often, the exact text is a bit abstracted from what it actually does. For example, consider the snippet below written for a C# game in Unity:

This code saves the value of the axis inputs (0-1) as variables, but if you’d never touched coding before, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that from the text alone. It is, for this reason, many find coding a hard subject to learn, as it is a bit less of a visual medium.

However, this is why many developers out there created visual scripting and frameworks that do not require any coding from scratch. Most visual scripting is based on the idea of blocks, where students take a block of code and drag it onto a screen until their blocks connect and form a coherent instruction. Other frameworks, like Unity Playground, operate on the same principle, though instead of blocks, kids work with premade assets and their settings to ultimately create their project.

While this is limiting for obvious reasons, it does allow kids to get their feet wet when learning to code. Most of these frameworks and scripts still let students work with things like variables, loops, and other common elements they’ll need to create their programs – just in a much visually friendlier way that will help them create their first projects. Below are just some of the resources you can use in your search for a suitable visual scripting system:

Resources

Visual scripting as seen in Unreal Engine

Focus on coding principles

When learning to code from scratch, whether it’s coding for kids or adults, the primary goal should first be to learn coding principles. This includes not only concepts like objects, but general features seen in every programming language. This includes things like variables, operators, arrays, for loops, while loops, classes, functions & methods, and so forth. While certain languages have their own unique features (like pointers in C++ for example), the ones mentioned above are near-universal to every language, so starting with these principles will provide the best foundation for going forward.

You can think of it like learning a second language. Kids do need to know the letters, grammar, and punctuation (much like coding syntax), but nothing gets done until they understand the difference between nouns, verbs, and objects. So, teaching these first and foremost will set kids up to able to then use those principles for their projects.

Resources

Teacher instructing kids in a classroom

Take a project-based approach

As hinted at, after learning the coding principles, it is important to help kids apply those principles. After all, even if you know what a variable is, it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t use the variable for anything. So, the next important tip for teaching coding for kids is to plan out some specific projects.

What sorts of projects will depend on the kid who is learning. For example, maybe they want to create a website similar to one that they like to visit, or they were inspired by Fortnite and want to make a battle royale for just them and their friends. There is an exhaustive list of possible projects, but every project gives kids a chance to explore the coding principles as they are actually used. Plus, with plenty of tutorials out there that go through projects step-by-step, it is easy for kids to learn how to apply them.

Beyond this, you can also choose to let kids plan their own projects. In so doing, you allow them to express their creativity and participate in the design process as well, which will empower them with the coding knowledge they do have.

For more on project ideas, we recommend checking out our article Coding for Kids: Languages and Project Ideas. You can also try any of the other resources below:

Platformer made with Unity playground

Find online classes, apps, and games

Adults, unfortunately, live busy lives, so teaching coding for kids yourself may not be feasible. However, there is no shame in seeking out third-party help! There is a slew of online classes, tutorials, apps, and games all designed to help kids learn how to code. So, why not use them? Consider that many of these materials are developed by full-time developers, so you can rest assured the kids are getting expert help.

In fact, even if you do have time yourself, you may even find it beneficial to use these materials to help supplement your own. This way kids can receive a rounded approach to how they learn, and you can hone in on what method may work the best for them. Plus, with games and apps designed to teach coding, it can really fulfill that whole fun criterion we talked about earlier!

There are many third-party resources out there to help your kids learn, but below we’ve compiled our following recommendations to get started.

Resources

Example of Codemurai

Find supportive communities

Similarly to the above, coding for kids can be done as a group. Particularly for outgoing kids, this may even show greater success in terms of getting kids invested in the subject. Finding a supportive community, then, may be very important. Not only does it allow kids to learn along with others, but it gives parents, teachers, and similar the chance to exchange ideas and support one another with the educational process.

Additionally, supportive communities also have fun events for kids to take part in. This can include community welfare projects, GameJams & Hackathons, contests, and more. These sorts of activities can help motivate kids to pursue coding even further, so finding and utilizing them is an important aspect to teaching.

Resources

Older adult showing group about technology

Conclusion

Coding for kids is not only something that can boost the future of the next generation, but is also a skill set that is near guaranteed to stay in-demand for a long time to come. Teaching kids how to code is also very do-able, even if it involves employing the help of third parties. Nevertheless, with the tips provided, we hope we’ve helped guide you along the path to developing an approach that works for you and your kids.

We strongly believe coding for kids can also be a fun and fantastic experience as well, whether it’s because it helps kids boost their creativity, helps them supplement their general education, or something else. Even for adults, many of these tips can help when starting out. So, stop waiting, and start diving into learning how to code!

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