In a society predicated by the rapid evolution of technology, each year brings with it increased reliance on modern innovations. As this overarching concept takes over even the most basic tasks in daily life, it’s no surprise that children aren’t excluded from these growing trends. Over half of children have a cell phone by age 6, with even more parents reporting ownership of tablets, game systems, and personal televisions. Many children begin using educational software starting around age 3, and 80% of children have computer access at home.
Today's youth were born in a world of iPhones, iPads, and affordable computers, leading to acuity and understanding at an early age. The result? Instead of French, Spanish, or Mandarin, the second language children are learning is computer code. Ubiquitous across borders and a necessary building block in modern computing, the question should not be "why" but "when."
Teaching Coding at a Young Age
Neuroscientific research indicates strongly that language acquisition is most effective at a young age, extending to both primary and secondary languages. Children who grow up in a bilingual home, for example, are much more likely to speak two languages naturally than older children and adults attempting to study a second language. Coding, as a language of its own, functions on the same principles, and it’s never too early to start with the basics.
Unlike spoken language, which relies on both an understanding of vocal patterns and written characters, coding is largely visual, making it as easy or easier to learn for young children still mastering the foundations of reading. Just as all children can learn how to write, all children have the mental faculties to learn the basics of coding, even before reading skills are fully developed.
Psychosocial development, as outlined by psychologist Erik Eriksen, pinpoints the development of logic during the industry vs. inferiority stage, beginning around ages 5 to 6. His research argues that at this stage, children learn to think for themselves and begin to view the position of their own lives within the greater existence of society. This age range correlates with Jean Piaget’s theories of cognitive development, claiming that around age 7, children enter the concrete operational stage of development. At this point, children are mature enough to apply logical operations, leading to more organized, rational thought.
Simply put, as soon as a child is old enough to begin to think critically and learn problem solving skills, he is old enough to master the basic building blocks of coding.
What Languages to Learn
Most picture languages designed to help children learn and explore are adaptations of logo language, or a programming language that relies on “turtles,” a term that refers to a small class of robot that draws line graphics. This concept allows students to imagine graphics origination based on a turtle’s motion, which makes the process of a line's progress easier to understand. As such, many developers have created platforms using this concept simplified to youth comprehension levels.
TurtleArt, for example, is a creative interpretation of the basics of logo language based on geometry and core art principles that allows users to create drawings, sketched by a small turtle protagonist. By snapping together blocks, children can direct the turtle to move in specific directions to create geometric images. This program is extremely simplistic, but still builds upon coding basics required to perform advanced functions in more complex languages.
A little more advanced and creative, bubble languages like Scratch, Tynker, and Hopscotch can allow children to build graphics and games using simplified versions of common coding languages. Scratch, for example, uses event-driven programming to control active objects known as sprites. Through manipulating these sprites, children can create moving images, showing immediate visible results from simple coding exercises. Tykner is similar, setting up the coding process as a series of puzzles that, when solved, trigger certain events. Children can move at their own pace, working through puzzles and using this newly-acquired knowledge to design games and issue commands to robots, drones, and more. Hopscotch is another popular alternative, guiding users through tutorials designed to make game-building easy.
Many children are tactile learners, especially early in life when educational tools can be processed through the sense of touch. This affinity can easily be translated to programming, especially with the debut of many toys that can be controlled through simple coding prompts. Companies like LEGO have met this need head-on, providing toys that are as enjoyable as they are educational.
A huge departure from traditional plastic LEGOs, LEGO Mindstorms are specialty sets that allow children to build and control robots using the included hardware and software. Sold as a partnership between LEGO and MIT Media Laboratory as an educational resource, these creative toys encourage exploration into robotics, allowing children to create unique figures and control their movements using an adaptation of common programming software.
ReCon 6.0 Rover Toy
Perfect for little ones who want an introduction to elementary robotics, the ReCon 6.0 Rover Toy is a programmable robot that takes cues using programming language. With the right command prompts, the ReCon 6.0 can perform a wide range of fun and interesting tasks, including showing off the latest dance moves. No computer is required; all of the programming commands can be entered right onto the robot’s LCD screen for a true hands-on experience.
Merging robot technology with cell phone features, the RoboMe is a fully customizable robot on wheels that can be controlled by an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Featuring a light up LED face, mood indicator, and programmable features, RoboMe is an interactive experience perfect for children starting to explore the capabilities of robots and coding. In addition to movement commands, children can program RoboMe to respond to touch and voice command, creating a fully interactive experience.
Sphero is another fully interactive robot that can be controlled by an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. It can be programmed using a simple interface which combines its sensors with logical commands to instruct Sphero how to move and which colors to activate. It can be used in many interactive games.
Your child has the possibility to build anything, no soldering required, with LittleBits. Available in simple snap-together options that can create circuits, gizmos, and gadgets in addition to more complex home automation building options and software programming tools, LittleBits are the perfect hands-on introduction to building and programming. An ideal solution for children fascinated by electrical and mechanical gameplay as well as older youths interested in applying coding skills to real-world applications, LittleBits are fun for kids (and adults) of any age.
Building an independent game can be very enjoyable, but using programming skills to enhance dynamic, preexisting games can be just as enjoyable, especially for children trying to master the art of programming. Games like Minecraft, Blockland and The Powder Toy, among many others that fall into the broad category of sandbox games, can be played as intended, or modded using programming skills to create new characters, resources, and tools.
Minecraft is arguably the most popular of this variety of game, although many spinoffs and recreations exist with varying plotlines and gameplay options. In Minecraft, players place textured cubes in formation to build virtually anything. Players can choose between three modes: Survival Mode, in which users must find or create resources to survive, Creative Mode, in which users have unlimited resources to build and create items of their choosing, and Adventure Mode, in which users can explore maps created by other players. Perfect as a creative experience in coding skills, successful Minecraft players have been able to build life-size models of literally everything. Blockland is a similar game, with a focus on construction. Like LEGOs but virtual, players can use coding knowledge to create everything from weapons to residences, while mastering quests like surviving zombies and fighting other players.
The Powder Toy is a graphically simple but sophisticated simulation game based on cellular automatons. Children of all ages will not only get accustomed with the concepts of cellular automaton, finite-state machines but also a bit of physics and even chemistry. Another particularly interesting aspect of this game is that it will introduce the player to non-standard programming paradigms such as cellular automatons and to the notion that building machines and programming are very similar activities.
In addition to standard gameplay, many third party sites offer competitions for in-game creations, including challenging players to build the same resources or create new, dynamic maps. With virtually unlimited abilities, these games are fun for children of all ages to practice coding skills and explore real-time gratification from programming knowledge.
If your child has expressed interest in computers, gaming, or technology, it’s never too early to begin exploring principles of coding. Even if you don’t know much about the wide world of computer programming, that’s okay; there are many online tutorials, guidelines, and games children starting can learn.
How you may want to get started will depend entirely on your child, his experiences, and his interests. If your child plays with LEGOs, robots, and other technology-related toys, a programmable toy may be a good way to break into what coding can do. Alternately, if your child enjoys smartphone apps and computer games, a simple program like TurtleArt or Tynker may be the best way to hold his attention.
Many companies, like Google, also offer introductory projects easy for children to follow, giving your little one a great opportunity to jump into the wide world of what programming can do. Scratch, for example, offers resources for parents, providing some information you can use to get the ball rolling. Code.org also offers a wealth of information; as a resource specifically designed to improve coding education, children can take advantage of dozens of tutorials and projects to build elementary knowledge.
Programming is in high demand in the current job market, and as technological applications continue to grow, so does the prognosis for the future. By getting your child started in coding early, you can set the foundation for a successful career and an enjoyable hobby, no matter where life may take him.