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3 Simple Ways to Introduce Your Children to Coding

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Almost done with my CS degree; took a detour into networking. Studying for OSCP . . . recreationally.

It's become common knowledge that computer programming is one of the most valuable skills of the future workforce. Software engineers will typically make six digits, and even if software development is not what you end up doing exclusively, there is an abundance of other related jobs in science and engineering that require some knowledge of programming.

To prepare my kids now, one of the most essential and easiest things I can do as a parent of a child at the kindergarten age is to emphasize math. Math, math, math. I don't mean to necessarily put your child through endless formal math drills, although some kids might enjoy that. Math can be naturally worked into any conversation because it's applicable everywhere. But at the very base level, regardless of the specific topic, children need to develop some mindsets that will serve them the rest of their lives:

  1. Math is fun.
  2. Math is important.
  3. Math is relevant.
  4. Math is something I can do.

Many programmers originally had math degrees and naturally made the transition. And within a computer science degree, there is a lot of math that's required. And besides that, developing in my children an innate sense of logic, curiosity, and a systematic approach to problem-solving are extremely useful traits.

I used to teach computer science to high school students, so I became a pro at finding and utilizing the resources that are out there to make coding accessible to kids. Below are just a few recommendations for younger children (generally kindergarten-fifth grade), to be followed up with recommended resources for older kids in my next post.

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1. Hour of Code

Code.org is a well-known website that offers a ton of activities for both younger and older kids. They specialize in free computer science curricula for elementary school and high school, but for the average parent, there are lots of puzzles that can be easily accessed at home. They're called Hour of Code activities; you may have heard about schools hosting Hour of Code events. These activities do not need to be facilitated in a school or classroom. They are so user-friendly that any child can sit down in front of a computer and complete them independently using the built-in tips and hints. Very young children might need an adult to just read some of the directions. But the activities are broken up into bite-size chunks that build successively, so you only move onto the next level when the previous level has been successfully completed.

The activities are based on popular games and movies, like Flappy Birds, Star Wars, and Frozen. Parents, you don't need to have any prior knowledge of computer science to complete the activities with your kids. Here are some sample Hour of Code puzzles. You'll see you can choose activities for pre-readers or for grades 2-5.

Tynker.com has a comparable selection with different characters and a different user interface, so try it when your kids are done with code.org or use both simultaneously, alternating for variety.

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2. Ozobots

The Ozobot is an adorable miniature robot that is easily programmable. One of the features kids love is the light sensor. What this means practically is that kids can draw almost any path on paper with markers (they come with the kit) and the robot will follow the path. Also, different marker colors will result in different actions, such as speeding up or spinning around. (This illustrates photo-electric sensors with analog output converted to digital, and is a soft introduction to programming a microcontroller.)

Besides markers, the kits typically come with tiny robot attire, stickers, and mazes for the Ozobot to follow. My son came home from kindergarten one day and knew exactly how to use the Ozobot because they'd been practicing in school! There is also an app and a web interface that allows kids to use a block-type language (drag-and-drop commands) to make their own robot programs, and more advanced users can easily switch from blocks to JavaScript. Even better, many of the kits are well under $100.

3. Code and Go Robot Mouse

The Code and Go Robot Mouse is the most tactile of the three, so it's a perfect complement to the other two approaches or even a great starter for those kiddos who might find the screen too abstract in the early stages.

Kids are challenged to create mazes on a fairly large board, using the walls and tunnel options included in the kit. Then they must program a robot mouse (by easily selecting buttons) with a sequence of steps that will allow him to successfully complete the maze and get the cheese. It comes with activity cards for suggestions.

I like getting this as a gift when my son is invited to classmates' birthday parties. It's always a hit with parents because it's a refreshing alternative for kids that are inundated with Barbies and trucks.

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