Cool Kids Code

Coding is more relevant than ever in our society. Here are some ways to begin getting your kids up to the task.

The new year always comes with a slew of goals and hopes for the future. Many of these focus on self-improvement and professional goals we’ve put off (often for far too long). In a previous blog post, I discussed the rapid advent of modern technology and how quickly our world is changing. One of the solutions I propose to handle these speedy changes is allocation of educational resources to the areas of STEM and art.

Mathematics is the language of science and the natural world, and without a solid foundation in math, our students will not be well-equipped to meet the challenges of this futuristic world we are creating. But perhaps even more importantly, we need to inspire our youth to study humanities. Math and science without art will give answers to complex problems, but cannot inspire us to ask the questions in the first place.

As we head in to the new year, let’s take a look at how parents of young children can inspire interest in STEM fields and help them build much-needed coding skills in an age-appropriate fashion. As a teacher and a scientist, I have always been a proponent of training young children in computer science from their first day in school.

Why

What benefits could a four or five-year-old child possibly be getting (and what could she possibly be retaining) from computer science at such a young age? The two most important things children in early computer science programs develop are:

1. Sequential thinking skills; and

2. Curiosity.

Sequential thinking skills are vital to a child’s educational and (later) professional careers. Think about it — whether it’s reading comprehension, the scientific method, or anything else, to be successful we need to be able to order our thoughts and proceeded accordingly. Take reading comprehension for example. When reading critically, students have to be taught to look for an introduction, a setting, a build-up, a climax, a falling action, and a conclusion. If a child is introduced to the methodical and sequential nature of coding early on, this will strengthen her reading skills and make picking up plot elements (and therefore being a good critical reader) that much easier for her. Such sequential thinking skills are the foundational building blocks of computer science, and once established, are transferable to nearly every field.

Which brings us to curiosity. All children are naturally curious, but some need a bit of motivation in order to act upon that curiosity and seek answers to their questions. Modern computers can seem like the stuff of dreams to full-grown adults — imagine how young children must think of them. These thin devices that they can play games, read, and watch videos on, however, are not magical. They have thousands of parts working together to bring images to life on their screens. Breaking processes down for children and walking through how computers work shows children that it isn’t magic — and inspires them to delve deeper into concepts introduced early on.

How

This all sounds great, but how can we teach young children skills that many adults don’t have? Can we really expect preschoolers and kindergartners to be writing lines of Python?

Obviously we can’t expect anything like that — but what we can do is build a strong foundation early on that will stay with them as they grow and learn. Building a foundation requires a simple approach to computers and how they work. If you want to see an example of that, just take a look at our first iteration of 4Thought Junior here or below.

Let me use my class as an example. With my students, when we reach the unit on computers and coding, we follow these steps:

1. Acquainting ourselves with a computer and its basic parts. Children today spend so much time on their gadgets that they are quite familiar with them. It is important to learn the proper names for things early, so that’s what we do. We also practice basic skills like moving a mouse pointer, double clicking, opening and closing windows, etc.
2. Understanding the difference between computer inputs and outputs. Once they learn the parts of the computer, being able to categorize them into these two categories is essential to move on to topic 3. . .
3. Discussing how the different parts talk to one another (this fosters their natural curiosity. Our keyboard is an input and our monitor is an output, but when I hit the keys — how do the letters appear on the screen?).

In order to explain how this works to young children, I do two exercises with my students. Both are similar; I spend two weeks on this concept to really hammer it in.

One of these exercises is a drawing activity. I pretend to be “the computer,” and they pick something for me to draw. I lay a piece of paper and a pencil in front of me, and tell them I will draw the object they have selected, but that they have to tell me exactly what to do using their words. This takes a good half hour, because they start by saying things like “draw the house,” not realizing that they need to tell me things like “pick up your pencil” “get your paper,” and “draw a line” first. After we complete the drawing (with much difficulty every time), we repeat the same exercise, but this time, they assign numbers from 1–6 for:

paper

pencil

draw

line

curve, and

stop

If they say “stop,” I keep going — they have to use the number they assigned to the word stop for me to understand. The activity is great — the students always enjoy it — and, more importantly, it’s effective.

What Can I Do At Home?

These skills are universal, and children will be able to take them and apply them to all aspects of their education and lives as they grow. Below are a series of resources for parents who would like to explore computer science education at home:

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