The following is adapted from First Time Coders.
Parents and teachers often wonder when the right time is to begin teaching children to code. At First Code Academy, we believe the sooner, the better. Technology is increasingly driving our world, so coding is now as fundamental of a subject as math, English, and geography. Just like we begin teaching children these subjects in elementary school, so too should we teach them to code.
But just as you wouldn’t try to teach a seven-year-old calculus, you can’t jump right into more complex coding education. In the 6 to 8 age range, kids are not yet ready for the abstract thinking required in more advanced programming, but they are well equipped for hands-on coding lessons.
It’s important to understand what children of this age can and cannot handle so that you don’t inadvertently kill a budding love for coding. This article will guide you through how to teach coding to kids in this age range, with age-tailored learning objectives and tools.
Learning Objectives: Fostering Imaginative Tinkerers
At this age, most children begin formal schooling. They are full of imagination and curious about their surroundings, so coding lessons and projects for this age group should focus on allowing students to play hands-on, tell stories, and express their imaginations.
Children of this age engage in concrete thinking and need physical tools in order to learn coding, which is quite abstract. These tools need to allow students to feel as though they now understand some of the fundamentals of coding.
At this age, students can utilize robots to learn about coding in a hands-on manner, and they can also start to use an iPad to program, using block-based programming languages. These languages remove the complexity involved in syntax-based languages, where an accidental typo or the introduction of a space in a string of code can break the program. The demanding level of typing accuracy can be frustrating for these younger children.
Through drag and drop, using block-based programming languages, students can begin to understand initial concepts of coding, including loops, conditionals, and function-like procedures. These concepts are easily transferable when students begin learning syntax-based languages later on.
The overall goal is to encourage students’ creativity, logical thinking, and problem-solving skills. To achieve this, focus on these three main objectives:
- Designing and writing code to achieve specific objectives. For example, children can navigate a robot through a maze by coding a complex list of commands made possible through the block-based language.
- Developing logical thinking to explain and understand how simple algorithms work. Children can begin to understand basic algorithms and how to build them.
- Finding and correcting errors in their code. Because coding can become more complex in this age range, it is inevitable that students will begin to encounter errors in their code. Children learn to become observant about what may be missing or incorrect. At this stage, they can easily see something that’s gone wrong because the robot simply won’t do what they told it to do. Children learn to decipher why the error has happened and how to correct the code for the robot, to ask as they wish.
Scratch, ScratchJr, Sphero, Dash, and Minecraft Modding are great tools for this age group. These tools can be used to build animations in games, are highly interactive and fun, and don’t require advanced typing skills.
Scratch is one of, if not the most, prevalent block-based language for K–12 coding education. Developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and first released in 2004, it provides a web-based platform to program games and animation. Scratch comes with some great benefits:
- It only requires a browser, thus the software is quick to start and the student doesn’t get bogged down by a long set-up time.
- Students don’t need to know any complex syntax. They only need to be able to read simple words like “move,” “if,” and “then.”
- The program is very visual. Students can create projects that are fun, functional, and interactive. For example, Maze Runner is a game where you use the arrow keys to move an apple across a screen into a blue hole.
- They can also create simple stories that allow for self-expression.
This age group of six- to eight-year-olds finds joy in seeing something they’ve created on-screen. Scratch is very customizable—students can choose their own images and colors, and most children spend hours playing with the customizations. Through these projects, students learn important computer concepts, such as conditionals and variables, that will play a role in more advanced programming.
ScratchJr is a visual programming language that is inspired by the Scratch programming language and is available as a free app on iPad and Android tablets. The ScratchJr team redesigned the Scratch interface and programming language to match young children’s cognitive, personal, social, and emotional development. The goal of the design was to allow children to learn to think creatively and reason logically, even before knowing how to read. All the blocks on ScratchJr are symbols.
Through ScratchJr, young children can program their interactive stories and games. They snap together blocks to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing. They can also modify characters in the paint editor, add their own voices and sounds, even insert photos of themselves.
Programmable Robots: Sphero and Dash
Sphero is a programmable robot ball that can be controlled by an app through block-based programming languages. The spherical shape enables it to go from painting to swimming to maze-running.
Dash is another programmable robot. This blue robot can connect with various mobile apps. One of the apps, Blockly, uses a block-based programming language to program the robot, including moving ahead or backward, turning right or left, or reacting to voice commands.
For many children, Minecraft is a game that does not require any introduction. In short, this best-selling game allows players to create different 3D worlds by assembling various elements and blocks. Minecraft “modding” (or modifications) refers to making modifications to the game, enhancing gameplay, and making their world much more powerful. A mod can be one of many different things: creating a new character, adding new behaviors to existing characters, or changing the environment.
In most cases, children should learn Minecraft Modding only if they have played Minecraft before. This gives them the context and familiarity of the gameplay, which can help them appreciate the power of modding and coding within Minecraft. Because children already enjoy this game, having the ability to create mods is a great way to encourage programming. They can show off their more advanced gameplay to their friends.
How Parents Can Help
Listen and play along. Most of these tools will look like games or toys to adults. Parents can support their children by being present and expressing an interest in what the child coded.
Build together. Parents can participate and tinker with the block-based programs together with their child. Even if parents don’t know how to code, these hands-on tools are so simple and intuitive that they will still be able to learn on the fly and build projects with their kids.
With a focus on tinkering and block-based programming languages, parents and teachers can avoid overwhelming young students with overly detailed, complicated coding, as found in syntax-based languages, like Python. Block-based programming languages provide a solid foundation for future programming and can help children develop an intuitive feel for coding logic. Most importantly, by making sure the education is fun, parents and teachers can help children develop a lifelong love of coding.
For more advice on how to teach coding to kids, including many fun, age-appropriate practice exercises, you can find First Time Coders on Amazon.