My daughter's school offered a coding class as one of this year's summer school offerings. I was excited. She was not.
Ah, tweens. The tricky thing is that they're smart enough to argue with you. In this case, my daughter pointed out that the class description said it was "self-guided" and that she could guide herself through one of the many websites and apps for kids who want to code, which are free or just a few dollars. And she could do it in her jammies.
I appreciate the kid's style, and after taking a few other factors into consideration, we talked about how she was going to have to take initiative, stay motivated and all those things that often don't come easily to this age group. She agreed.
At my request, over these first few weeks of summer my tween tried out an assortment of coding websites and apps for tweens. Here's what we tried and what we thought. (If you're looking for ones more suited to teens, click here.)
1. Code Monster from Crunchzilla
Best for Kids in Grades 6-12
What my tween thought: She was a little thrown at first that it jumps right in and teaches by example, telling kids to start altering some code already entered to see what happens, and not really explaining much. After a while, though, she was a big fan. I asked her to take notes on each site and for this she said, "Hard to stop this!"
At first, though, she wrote down "little boring" but crossed that off and next to it wrote "Awesome!" I think that's a key point that some of these may seem overly easy or simple, or conversely a bit confusing, but it's worth it to keep going for at least a few minutes. She got into a groove and changed her mind really quickly.
What an expert thinks: "Code Monster is simple but mostly effective as a self-led journey of programming discovery. The hands-on manipulation and immediate feedback can give kids satisfaction and joy in discovering how what they're writing changes what they're seeing. It should also help them understand how the different pieces of code work. This can be a fun exercise, even for kids who wouldn't normally be excited about computer programming." - Common Sense Media
Good to know: It isn't designed for iPads and mobile devices, though it may still work. Once you've loaded the website, you can use it offline so it's good for doing in the car or at the airport.
Best for Kids in Grades 2 through 8
What my tween thinks: My daughter described this as "very fun" and said she liked the animation and graphics. She said it was "good for any age group" and I think she appreciated the "age-neutral" approach, if there is such a thing. It didn't feel too much like elementary school but it wasn't over her head, either. All in all, it got two tween thumbs up.
What an expert thinks: "Teaching kids programming can be difficult, but Hopscotch smooths the way with its kid-friendly interface and pre-built blocks. Unlike some of the other kid-coding apps out there, Hopscotch is open-ended and encourages kids to come up with their own projects." - PC Magazine
Best for Kids in Grades 5-12
What my tween thinks: My tween was a big fan of the music
What an expert thinks: "Kids learn a full-range of programming skills in a fun, engrossing game that also demonstrates what they can create themselves using the skills they're learning. Cargo-Bot is a simple concept that packs a challenging punch and teaches valuable programming skills. . . . The step-by-step logic that teaches kids to tackle a bigger problem by breaking it into steps will build better programmers and also help kids in many tasks and subject areas." - Graphite.org
Cost: Portions are available for free; For full game, $19/year
Best for Kids grades 4 through 12
What my tween thinks: She said that it took her a while to understand because the instructions at the beginning were unclear but that it was really easy once she figured it out. She thought it was fun but best for kids at the younger end of the age range, but she was still a fan of the monkey. The cuteness reeled her in.
What an expert thinks: "A great introduction to coding with solid teacher support that gets kids using a real programming language and digging into some meatier concepts than other early coding tools." - Graphite.org
Best for Kids in Grades 6-12 (There is Lightbot Jr. if you have younger kiddos)
What my tween thinks: She was fine with this and did not think that it skewed young like she did with some of the others.
What an expert thinks: "This app is aimed at children, but it’s great fun and does a surprisingly thorough job of introducing some pretty complex principles of programming. . . Though the problems you have to solve may seem basic at first, they do become quite tricky, so even though this is technically a children’s app I don’t think adults will find it patronizing." - The New York Times
Best for Kids in Grades 1-6
What my tween thought: Turtles are her favorite animal, so that was a big plus right off the bat. It's in a game format, with the goal being to move a turtle around the screen using programming instructions, and she thought that was cute, though maybe a little childish.
What an expert thinks: "I highly recommend it for all kids, whether or not they want to get into programming. The kind of thinking required to solve the tasks in the app is important for everyone to learn, for every field of study." - Geek Dad in Wired.com
Good to know: The game is divided into three chapters with each chapter having nine levels, with new concepts introduced as the player goes and each level is a bit harder. It's worth encouraging kids who aren't challenged off the bat to stick with it and get to those harder levels.
Hopefully these resources will get your kids coding over the summer and learning both valuable coding skills but also getting some practice with the logical, systematic thinking that coding requires, as well as a chance to create something.
I found that with these apps and sites there's a fine line for parents to walk in terms of making sure kids understand how to get started and keeping them motivated. The motivation can be required on both ends, be it working through the basic levels that seem to easy to get to a more challenging and interesting section or helping out with something challenging and ensuring that they don't give up.
Many of these focus on experiential learning rather than lots of teaching, and with only a few hints, some kids may feel the task is too daunting and give up. Having a parent available to help work through the tough stuff is great, but it's important to not helicopter on this.
A great way to see how your kid is doing and to demonstrate your interest is to ask them to help you get started on the site yourself, or show you how they got around a problem. Many of the reviewers said these sites are good for adults who want to learn, too, so it could be a great win-win for everyone!
There are many great resources for teaching kids how to code available online. Please feel free to recommend any of your favorites in the comments.
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