Coding for Kids
We keep hearing the future belongs to programmers, but today’s schools barely get beyond teaching them how to type and use Word and Excel. That’s despite a plethora of ways to teach coding to kids, including an innovative set of books and Web sites that can show and tell them how to create everything from basic games to controlling robots. The best part is that most use open-source programming languages, like Python and Scratch, so there’s no extra software to buy.
Despite being a little long in the tooth, father and son authors Warren and Carter Sande’s Hello World programming manual has stood the test of time. A great place to start, the 440-page book is aimed at 6th graders and up, but may be a bit much for small kids to understand or even carry around. The book is illustrated with 90s-ish cartoon characters and takes you through the basics of using Python with a bunch of projects that actually help teach basic math as well as programming skills. Organized around the fundamentals, there are chapters on modules, objects and sound. Along the way, the book’s quizzes can be turned into grades for a class. The latest edition costs about $30.
Rather than start from scratch, why not use a programming class to customize and augment an existing game so that kids learn as they customize and play games. With Program with Minecraft, Craig Richardson shows how to use the Python programming environment to take a teleportation trip around the game’s landscape, create forests and make secret passageways. You can even add lava and water traps to Minecraft. The class might think they’re playing a popular game, but beneath the surface, the class will be learning about object oriented programming, Boolean loops, “if” statements and more. The 320-page $30 book ($24 as an eBook), includes a cheat sheet.
The premise of Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming is that adult programmers shouldn’t have all the fun of making creative programs. The 344-page book is aimed at 9-year olds and up, and works with Python code on a variety of platforms, including the inexpensive Raspberry Pi DIY computer. Written by Jason R. Briggs, it is a step by step guide that is equal parts serious coding instructions and light-hearted jokes and project instructions, including two full games. Rather than a boring quiz, each section has a puzzle that is aimed at expanding the horizons of each student and reinforcing what’s been learned. It costs $35 for the print edition or about $15 for the Kindle e-book version.
Scratch for Kids uses the MIT-created Scratch programming language and is an excellent introduction to both computers and programming for middle- and high-school students. Derek Breen includes sections for making games, creating animation sequences and sharing the results with other kid-programmers. The $30 ($20 in eBook form) book has 384 pages that includes 16 projects for kids to perform. The beauty of Scratch is that it can run in a browser window or in an application, so just about any computer at school is fair game.
Marina Umaschi Bers and Mitchel Resnick (the creator of Scratch) have teamed up to create a book for the youngest programmers with lots of step-by-step directions and illustrations for getting the most out of the junior version of Scratch. The free software runs on iPads and Android slates, and the result is a programming course that lets kids do everything from making interactive games to writing stories and creating animation. A big bonus is that the 160-page book has an online resource book that links each lesson with the relevant Common Core standard. If you buy the paperback book for $20 you get the e-book; on its own, the Official Scratch e-book is $16.
Why deal with a book at all when programming can be integrated from the start in a school’s digital curriculum. That’s the idea behind the new Odysseyware Principles of Coding unit, which teaches the basics of programming to middle school students by having them create projects like games, simulations and their own apps. It’s based on the Computer Science Teachers Association’s standards, and could be the start of a new generation of imaginative programmers.
Finally, Tynker takes coding class to a new level with a K-through-8th grade curriculum that has basic modules for the rudiments of coding, but also has instruction for math, science, English and social studies projects. Each module has lesson plans, quizzes and puzzles so there’s little extra that the teacher has to provide. There’s a free trial of one of the modules and the whole curriculum can be licensed for $400 a year per classroom or $2,000 per school for up to 400 students.