Learning the language that computers speak can seem like a steep technical challenge for an adult, let alone an elementary-school kid. But learning to code is the kind of parent-approved “gaming” kids need more of: It builds problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and it’s creative too. “Computers are changing every field. Having a basic understanding of how this stuff works is just as important as learning math,” says Hadi Partovi, the tech entrepreneur behind Hour of Code and code.org.
Many experts recommend that kids begin with visual block-based coding, in which they use a mouse or a finger to “drag and drop” blocks of language on a computer or a tablet screen. Following commands that appear in each block, such as “move 10 steps” and “repeat 4 times,” programs the computer to create basic game components, animations, and more. The nonprofit website code.org is a great place to start, says Lindsey Handley, Ph.D., cofounder of ThoughtSTEM, a San Diego–based EdTech startup. Its free Code Studio program has hundreds of block-based courses and activities to choose from. For instance, kids can make their own Star Wars game and program Elsa from Frozen to design snowflake art. The website also has information for parents on the importance of computer programming and a search function to find local in- and out- of-school coding programs.
If your child likes options, two of the most popular block-based coding websites, Scratch (free) and Tynker ($8 monthly), offer hundreds of activities. Scratch’s huge user library lets you browse for games that match your child’s interests. “If he’s really into dogs, for example, he can create a game where the dog collects bones or an app designed to teach people how to care for dogs,” Dr. Handley says. Tynker offers daily missions and 18 self-guided programming courses. Your child can even move on to programming drones or robots.
You can also motivate your child to continue coding with Bitsbox ($30 monthly). This service delivers monthly text-coding boxes via old-school mail. Kids choose one of many cards outlining an app, build that app on the Bitsbox website, and then move it to a tablet or smartphone with a QR code. “Coding is inherently fun, but, like anything, it can be hard to get kids to stick with it,” Dodge says. “Receiving a present in the mail helps."