Coding for kids: how children learn to program and have fun doing it

The world is becoming increasingly digitalized, and a growing number of professions require proficiency in using a computer. The more specialized your computer skills are, the easier it is to find employment. Children today are at a great advantage since they can grow up in a more digitally-savvy world and get to learn skills like programming while they are young rather than as an adult. There are many different learning programs and programming languages out there that children will find easy to learn and intuitive to use. Visual aids and engaging projects are used to introduce them step by step to the basics of programming.

Should children learn how to program?

Children generally learn quickly and on their own when provided with the right learning method. This has been primarily observed in children learning foreign languages and can be extrapolated to programming. After all, a programming language is, strictly speaking, a foreign language. It has vocabulary and a syntax of varying complexity that must be followed to ensure that what is written is correctly understood and produces the desired result – although, in this case, it is intended for computers rather than people. There is no reason not to introduce children to programming at an early age.

Note

It makes little difference to children whether they learn a human language or a programming language. They can thus get started when they are very young. Most online platforms are intended for children aged 7 and up, but there are also offers specifically designed for children aged 5 to 7.

There are also some clear advantages to children learning the basics of programming when they are young:

  • They have a natural thirst for knowledge and learn more quickly.
  • It helps them acquire practical soft skills, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity.
  • They can intuitively transition from visual to text-based programming languages.
  • It will provide them with advantages later in their professional lives (can be applied in all industries).

Programming for kids – how do they learn best?

Children learn best when they have a clear goal in mind that is presented in a fun and easy to understand way. In programming, this can take the form of creating a simple game, a small app or their first website. The important thing is that the child enjoys it and does not feel overwhelmed. The process to achieve this goal should neither be too long nor too complicated. Tools and learning offers designed for children usually focus on components that can be intuitively understood and directly applied. This allows children to quickly experience the thrill of their first successful project which motivates them to continue learning.

There is a variety of options out there for children to learn how to program or expand their knowledge including YouTube tutorials, app workshops, kids’ coding camps, and toys such as programmable robots.

Online resources specifically aimed at children and adolescents are particularly effective. They provide easy-to-understand and exciting projects that children can work on at their own pace to learn and internalize the basics of programming in a fun and pressure-free environment.

Which learning platforms and programming languages are suitable for kids?

Visual programming languages are the best to start for both children and adults looking to learn how to program without any prior knowledge or experience. Their informative graphical presentation and highly simplified functional procedures make them easier to understand and use intuitively. This makes it easy to program simple projects, but the scope for design and application is naturally limited.

Once the potential for visual programming has been exhausted and they to want to program more complex projects, it is time to move on to text-based programming.

Visual programming languages for kids

Visual programming languages work with graphically represented objects or building blocks, each containing code (i.e. script) for a specific property, condition, action, etc. By assembling these building blocks, a program procedure is created. The colors and shapes of the blocks allow them to see the possible combinations. The act of programming is usually accomplished by dragging and dropping the blocks to arrange them in a defined working area. This step checks whether the blocks are arranged logically, and any errors found are graphically highlighted.

This makes programming easy for children to understand and enables them to quickly see their initial results. At the same time, it helps them understand how a program’s code is logically structured with a little practice. This knowledge will help them later when they are learning text-based programming languages.

The following are the best visual programming languages for kids:

  • Scratch: Scratch is probably the most popular tool for children to learn how to program. The visual programming language and the open-source platform bearing the same name were developed by researchers at MIT for children and adolescents and feature many fun elements that make it easier to get started and encourage them to keep learning. In addition, there are countless online tutorials that make it easier to get started and offer help for concrete questions and problems. Completed projects can also be published on the platform to share and discuss them with the community.
  • Blockly: The Google project Blockly is not primarily designed for children, but it’s easy-to-understand visual format makes it well-suited for learning the basics of programming for both children and adults. Blockly is a library of graphical blocks, each representing a piece of code. They are combined in a visual editor accessed directly in the browser to create small programs and games.
  • NEPO: For those looking to venture into programming hardware, the intuitive programming language NEPO is a good choice. It uses the Blockly library, is based on Scratch and can be used for exciting projects such as programming robots on the platform Open Roberta.
  • Tynker: The learning platform Tynker (only available in English) focuses on teaching skills. It offers a variety of paid courses in which children can learn how to program using this visual programming language. Its development environment is based on Scratch, can be easily used in a browser or as an app on a tablet and is free to use for its basic functions. Tynker focuses on game development and animation. For example, it can be used to create Minecraft mods and content.

Text-based programming for kids and adolescents

In text-based programming languages, all parameters of a program must be expressed in detail as code with the correct predefined vocabulary and using the programming language’s syntax. This requires extensive knowledge, a strong imagination for grasping abstract concepts and great diligence to avoid errors. This may sound complicated, but there are a variety of options in this area to make text-based programming fun and exciting for kids and teach complex concepts in an age-appropriate manner.

  • Code.org is an online learning platform specialized on computer science where you can find a wide variety of content for every skill level. In addition to online tutorials, interactive courses, and offline lessons on a variety of programming languages, users can also create video game environments (e.g. for Minecraft) and program their own apps. All content is free of charge and available in English.
  • The platform CodeAcademy (only available in English) offers free online courses for text-based programming languages, such as Python, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, CSS, and many more. It offers a variety of tutorials to help children and adolescents with concrete projects, such as programming robots or apps.
  • The popular free-to-use learning platform Khan Academy offers video courses on JavaScript, CSS, and HTML and specific applications such as video games and web design.

All these learning platforms allow children to acquire a good understanding of the most important programming languages and to figure out if they want to become specialized in programming and, if so, in which area. If they want to delve deeper into a specific area or perfect their skills in a specific language, there are advanced courses and online tutorials as well as discussion platforms and specialized forums for each of the most important programming languages.


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