How young is too young for computer programming?

Many people I’ve spoken with are surprised that kids can learn the fundamentals of CS as young as first or second grades. I’m not talking syntax as much as mindset. Students may not have a grasp on letters or reading, so coding might seem like an unnatural addition to their academic world. Well, it shouldn’t be.

The phrase “Programming is the new literacy” makes a valid point, even if it is overly dramatic. People have needed literacy throughout history in order to find meaning in their world and gain meaningful employment. In the near future, kids and adults will need computer programming to find that meaning and employment.

Fluency in either English or a coding language will ultimately provide symbiotic benefits. Both coding and literacy begin with basic concepts and progress to more complex syntax. As kids learn the rules of computer programs or literacy, their mastery of previously unknown language allows them to control interpersonal or computer-based expression. In literacy, students are required to memorize sounds and sight words. In programming, they memorize commands and boolean concepts. The difference is that programming can be, in many ways, more intuitive than reading — no memorization of sight words or weird English patterns. Instead, young students code with things they already know: up and down, fast and slow, green and red. So the results are fast and the kids get quick wins. How many years does it take for a child to enjoy a good book that they read by themselves?

In both computer and verbal languages, students at some point graduate from learning to read/code to fluency to critical thinking. Programs like Scratch Jr and Code.org, and games like Robot Turtles provide kids with fantastic resources to start solving coding challenges as young as 4 years old. As a former elementary school teacher, I know how challenging it can be for some students to grasp literacy. The expectation is the same for programming. Some students grasp it easily while others find it extremely challenging, but it is always good to start early.

Best of all, as students overcome the day to day challenges in coding, they will learn the grit and growth mindset that are so important for their academic progress. Programming may be the new literacy, but it may also be the new literacy coach.