Should your child learn to code?

Steve Jobs once said “Everybody should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” And, that was 20 years ago.

In the UK, computer science is now compulsory on the curriculum for all students between the ages of 5 and 16. According to experts, a child at around the age of  7 should be capable of both writing and debugging a simple program. And, by the age of 11, children are expected to flirt with computing concepts that were once taught to undergraduate students.

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Child using a computer with binary code on the screen

Given that technology is in our lives for good, mastering code at a young age is considered critical to one’s future success in life. Even the good old-fashioned board games are slowly being replaced by programmable games.

How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” is one of the bizarre interview questions a software developer candidate has to expect nowadays.

As far as the ideal answer is concerned, it would be the one that a robot could understand. They are called to break down their answer to steps and make each step easily explainable (aka coded) to robots.

In the last 2 years lone, millions of people have downloaded a coding lesson for rookies from Hour of Code. This is because of a non-profit initiative, whose target is to help people improve their coding skills. Although the number of people that actually finished the course is unknown, learning to code from an early age is much more preferred, considering that adults find it more difficult to understand computational thinking.

What is coding after all?

Learning to code is learning how to make machines understand what you want them to do, from saying a simple “hello” to piloting an airplane in stormy weather. Most of the apps we all use and many of the things we do in our everyday life (withdraw money from an ATM) is based on coding.

Clearly, we live in an era of super-fast technological change and innovation and the necessity for people to understand how to use the connected world in unusual and new ways is growing. With this in mind, coding is as basic a need as writing and reading, which is why school curriculums across the world, one by one include coding classes.

With tons of jobs out there already using the code directly (software developers, web designers, robotic engineers) and many more occupations where knowing how to code is an enormous asset (nanotechnology, manufacturing, and information sciences) learning to code prepares children for the modern world we all live in. However, besides learning the code for career prep, there are also deeper reasons to do so.

1. Learning to code helps develop computational thinking and problem-solving skills.

Preschoolers can grasp concepts such as algorithms with computational thinking and what’s even more amazing is that they can do that without even understanding the terms! In simple terms, computational thinking combines algorithms, logic, and mathematics and is how software engineers solve problems.

“It introduces you to an entirely new way to think about the world and how to tackle problems by breaking them down into smaller problems that are more easily managed.”

This is why fields such as music, fluid mechanics, mechanical engineering and physics, among others, apply this approach. Admittedly, learning to think that way will help you not only understand but also conquer all sorts of technology and solve any kind of problem, no matter where it comes from.

As for the skills that come with coding, they help children foster problem-thinking techniques and new ways of thinking, which, of course, are transferable (and extremely valuable) skills.

2. If they understand the code, they can explain the world!

Children are taught sciences such as mathematics and biology to understand the world around them. Considering that computing now involves every single aspect of everybody’s life, from shopping and banking to education and communications, knowing the basics of the way computers communicate is indeed needed. Networked computers can control our health records, make sure our homes have the right temperature and our cars work properly. And, children should be able to know all about them to understand what is happening around them.

Kids learning to code and program

3. Code is the new language of the world!

It’s been estimated that by 2020, that in the US alone, there will be more than 1 million unfilled jobs dependent on coding. Also, a report from UK Commission on Employment and Skills has revealed that there is a crisis in IT recruitment. Hence, software development will also give your child an opportunity to have a well-paid job in the future.

If you consider that connected devices are expected to shape their world, understanding logic-based thinking will be extremely valued and any failing to do so will probably equal to innumeracy and illiteracy as they are perceived today. So, it’s best to start giving your child the necessary tools and knowledge as early as possible.

4. Children are faster learners than adults

Teaching a child code is like having them play a game or learning a new language. Their minds are more open and flexible, which makes it easier for them to sharpen their learning skills compared to an adult.

Taking into account the growing connectedness of our devices, workplaces, homes and in some cases, even our own bodies, it would be a pity to leave children’s natural inclination to learn faster be wasted. And, in regards the age that children should start familiarising themselves with coding (more in a later section), the country that introduced Skype to the rest of us, Estonian, teachers their first graders learn how to code!

But, the truth be told, the real question is:

CAN children be taught to learn the code at schools?

Education concept computer keyboard with word Kids Education on enter button

Teaching basic office IT skills is relatively easy for a teacher that doesn’t specialise in IT. However, it requires more in-depth knowledge to teach computational thinking. According to a research by the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers), more than 50% of the teachers now working as IT instructors don’t have a degree in computing!

“Interestingly, just three weeks before the new curriculum that included code to be taught at schools in the UK was introduced, 75% of the staff appeared to lack confidence over teaching how to code and computational thinking, based on a survey by Nesta.”

The same survey also showed that filling IT teaching posts was a real race in 2013 in 11% of the schools in the country.

Apparently, there is still lots to be done before our children can learn how to code at school.

How early can a child learn how to code?

Considering that the new generation programming languages are written for children that are still learning the basic skills of coding, kids as young as 5 can be introduced to the world of programming. The programs developed for these ages rely on visuals, where blocks of code can either be looped or sorted into sequences, without having to write the super-complex syntax developers and programmers of the previous years used to write.

Wondered baby looks at notebook screen

Now, when it comes to the effects learning to code might have on young children developmentally, research is still inconclusive. Experts[1] seem to disagree whether a 5-year-old should learn to code at all and claim that this urge to learn to code is driven by parents’ fear that their children will fail in life if they don’t get on the technology train[2].

Others, don’t find anything wrong in learning to code, providing it’s done in social settings and is not considered an essential activity, similar to open-ended play and reading.

How to help your child learn how to code

On the other side of the river bank there are those that argue there is no reason all children learn how to read or write C++ or Pythagoras. Instead, they say that what’s more important is for them to understand just the structure and the logic of technologies that allow them to watch a video on YouTube or play Angry Birds. This can be done if we focus on the creative process and help them understand the concept of building amazing things with the help of digital tools.

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There is lots of fun involved in learning how to code. You can create an animation or game. So, if you have a kid that loves making stuff with Lego, paper and cardboard, allowing them to see how the games are made can give birth to a new creative passion, as well! You can start with a Frozen learn-to-code game from Hour of Code, whose level of difficulty is average and is perfectly suited for a seven-year-old or you can have them make their own Flappy Bird game.

There are also hundreds of online coding courses that use simple tutorials and amazing graphics that promote learning to code through play, such as:

  • Kodable – This is an iPad app that is developed to make the young users learn how to code before they learn how to read! Lots of parents’ resources, too.
  • LEGO WeDo – This is something between robotics and building blocks. It is a LEGO series that helps kids build models with the use or programmable sensors and motors..
  • Robot Turtles – Is a board game specifically created for children aged four and up and teaches them basic computational thinking and coding skills.
  • SCRATCH – Is a program that allows children to learn computer concepts through drag-and-drop games and create animations and games of their own!
  • Tynker – It’s a program for children that know how to read and uses visual code blocks to teach programming (for iOS and Android).
  • The Foos: Code for an Hour FREEFor children 5 and up, this story-based coding game will allow kids to play through levels whose difficulty keeps increasing
  • Cato’s Hike – Another story-based game for kids older than 8 years of age that want to learn basic coding concepts.
  • My Robot Friend – Nine-year-olds will find this robot-themed coding puzzler exciting as they try to find the hidden treasures!
  • Other games that could be looked at are HopscotchLightbot and Mozilla Thimble which are all perfectly suited for children over 10.

    Kids learning to code and program

    There are also worthwhile organisations dedicated to helping children master the skills required and learn how to code. Some of which, include:

    You can also use Lego Mindstorms, which takes Lego bricks and links it to software that the children use to build snake robots and anything else they want and control them with an iPhone! In this case, they are programming (or coding) and having fun at the same time.

    Equally, Minecraft will force them to learn about logical concepts (“I need to combine flint and wood to make an arrow”) and build whatever their mind can come up with while also fighting giant spiders!

    A London-based startup has developed Kano for children from 6 to 14 to use and assemble their own computer. Then, they can learn basic programming building blocks and enjoy the games. As long as it is age-appropriate, it’s ready to be tested by you and your child.

    For older children tools such as Kandu and ScratchJr are also great and help kids create their own games and apps that they can then share with peers and rate!

    Now, if after all that tutoring and playing your child starts talking about branches, go-to-commands, and loops, you have every right to feel happy. They are learning to code! And, in our technology-fueled world, such knowledge is a prized skill that also encourages the little ones to look beyond the picture and become creators, rather than just consumers!

    [1] Jim Taylor: Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-fueled World.
    [2] Yasmin Kafai: Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming.