Teaching Kids to Code

Learnings from a hackathon with kids, part 2

This story is part of a series about running hackathons with kids. Please read Part 1 also.

Two weeks ago, Spotify wrote an open letter to the Swedish government demanding that politicians reform the education plan to include programming in elementary school.

Sweden needs to foster new coding talent early on in order to keep up with competition on the global market. Handicraft is still mandatory in Swedish school — programming isn’t.

I agree with Spotify, but we don’t want to wait for the government to take action. We have now held our second hackathon for kids. This time, we visited a public school in Stockholm to teach a class of fourth graders the basics of coding and design.

How we did it

The first hackathon that we arranged was at our office, and was a great success. Seven kids participated and created their own iPhone apps. This time, we wanted to scale it up and tackle an entire school class of 30 kids, and host the hackathon in their classroom. There would be fewer grownups to help the kids: four from apegroup and of course, the school teacher.

We were contacted by a teacher who was interested in having his students try programming and design for two lessons. We talked to him about what computers were available in the classroom and what to think about. This was an ordinary Swedish public school. They have laptops that can be lent out for a lesson, but not individual computers for each child. The laptops provided are slow to start up and require individual, usually troublesome logins for each child, so we were told to count for some set up time.

We decided to have one session with Scratch and one session with design ideation. Like our first hackathon, we started with a developer explaining how to build a simple game using Scratch. The kids did the same on their computers, step by step, with people from apegroup helping out when needed. This time, we made sure to give the children time to play around at the end of the coding session. We let them choose a game character from the Scratch library, paint their own game backdrops and drag and drop the building blocks to see what happened.

We managed to keep the exercise at a good level and the kids had no problem keeping up with the steps, although we did get slowed down by a few computer issues. One kid had played with Scratch a lot before, and got some help to continue on his own, but next time we will print out additional instructions to give to the quickest learners. Just as in our first hackathon, the kids asked for more time to code and play. Hopefully we have planted a seed and some of the kids will continue to play with Scratch at home.

Next up was design ideation. We wanted to teach the kids that design is about solving problems. We gave them an assignment they could relate to — to create an app idea for the classroom of the future. They started by discussing needs together with a friend and taking notes for five minutes. After that, they had some time to sketch different solutions to solve the needs they’d identified, and share their ideas with their partner. Finally, they sketched scenarios explaining how the app would work. The class teacher wrapped up the lesson and the kids who wanted to could tell the class about their ideas.

The kids had fun and lots of crazy and interesting solutions came out of the ideation workshop. The hardest part with the design session was to keep the kids from immediately starting to think about solutions, when the intention was to focus on needs.

This sketch shows an idea for having your name show up on the classroom projector as an alternative to reaching up your hand

How it turned out

How do we make kids interested in coding and design? That’s not even a problem — they love it! So, what’s the best way to teach kids to code? Give them the tools, some guidance and let them explore. Creativity is not a problem, but they need help with understanding the basics, and some exercises to get them started. What’s stopping us from teaching programming in elementary school? Time, money and old hardware. At the school we visited, all the teachers were really interested in teaching kids to code and they all wanted us to come back and have lessons with all the fourth graders. They also asked us to come and teach the teachers some coding, to be able to hold programming lessons themselves. Come on politicians! Put programming on the schedule, and make sure the kids have good equipment.


How to do it yourself

  • Select a programming exercise that is not too difficult, but still have examples of the coding principles that you want to teach, like if or while loops.
  • Prepare the exercise carefully! For this session we printed out a step by step guide to the Scratch game, so the helpers knew exactly what the kids were supposed to do.
  • If the classroom is getting unruly and you need to get everyone’s attention, try shouting “all hands in the air!” and lift your arms. It is easier to make the kids listen with no hands on the laptops.
  • Explain why each step in the design exercise is important, and give examples of how it could look. Sequential drawings are not obvious to those who haven’t done it before.
  • Have fun!

I work at Apegroup, a digital agency in Stockholm, Sweden, where I help companies create beautiful digital experiences. Want to know more about how we work? See our website.

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