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Why your kids should learn to code (and where they should start)

learn to code

In 1995 I moved to Los Angeles and started my career in web design. Before long, I decided to learn to code, a skill that proved to be invaluable.

I learned mostly out of necessity— the programmers den at my first web job had lost a few employees, and were overwhelmed with programming work. I simply got impatient waiting to see what my artwork looked like programmed for the web, so I decided to take matters into my hands. I don’t think I had any idea at the time that I’d still be using those skills today: As an entrepreneur who has developed a handful of websites for myself over the years, it’s handy to know how to speak to coders, to know what’s possible, and to jump in and make adjustments myself if things don’t look right. And as friends of mine embark on building sites for themselves or their businesses, I can be helpful in choosing developers to work with, and making sure they’re not overpaying for services and features they don’t need.

I wish I had learned how to code in school— alas, I am part of that generation that sits on the cusp of the digital revolution. I can remember high school typing class (on actual typewriters) where we’d fight to sit at the three or four Mac Classics on the periphery of the classroom.

learn to code

The screens were smaller than an iPad Mini, and were black and white. If I had started learning how to code then, I’d be a programming ninja now. But who could have forseen how much our culture, careers, and lives would revolve around all this digital stuff.

Our kids, however, have no excuse. And it’s too bad that so many schools aren’t moving quickly on creating programs for kids to learn how to code (although many are starting to catch on). For me, I think it’s a language that’s just as critical as any foreign language… perhaps even more so. Mitchel Resnick of MIT Media Lab has called coding “the new literacy,” and hundreds of people agreed: Thousands of backers Kickstarted his new project, ScratchJr., to life (described in more detail below).

If I’m preaching to the choir, good. But you might be thinking: Can my kid actually learn to code? And won’t this just be more computer time I have to regulate?

I’d think of it waaay differently than a Playstation session or a YouTube binge. Coding is beneficial to cognitive development. Coding will help your kids analyze problems and break down complex concepts. Coding stimulates the same neural mechanisms as learning French or Mandarin. And like learning any lingua franca, kids are sponges and benefit from soaking up concepts early. And in my house, I always encourage my kids to become active in their relationship with technology— screentime creating songs, movies, or games is regulated differently than passive screentime mindless consuming games and videos.

(For more “smart” screentime for kids, watch this video I made with Ulive).

Ready to get started? I’ve rounded up some of the top places to learn to code, arranged by age. (And psst—Mom and Dad, you might want to try ’em out, too.)

Coding for little kids

Even little kids can use MIT Media Lab’s ScratchJr app, aimed at five- to seven-year-olds. Kid coders can drag and drop puzzle pieces and “sprites” (characters) to create games and animated stories. A barnyard full of piggies? A rainbow-haired monster at the beach? ScratchJr can make them all come to life, which delights kids and gets them hooked on programming.

learn to code

For the hands-on type, Bitsbox, aimed at about six to nine-year-olds, has a different take: it’s a subscription box that sends kids a monthly box of trading cards with coding instructions for cute apps, so all kids need to do is copy the codes to generate the apps. It’s a bit like following a recipe to try a new dish.

Coding for bigger kids

The big sister of ScratchJr, Scratch, aimed at ages 8 to 16, kicks things up a level with drag-and-drop text blocks that are actually niblets of code (for instance, “change color” or “move 10 steps”). There’s lots of ready-made material to get beginning coders going, and as they become more advanced, users can draw or upload their own images. (For a similar experience on an iPad, try Pyonkee or the app-based Hopscotch.) For game lovers, Google’s Blockly offers simple games that require drag-and-drop coding to solve problems—such as helping a bird to reach her nest. For kids who are interested in robotics, Tickle takes a similar approach but includes drag-and-drop templates for programming tech toys such as Sphero, Arduino and drones. For the serious gamer, Tynker (for about ages 10 and up) promises to make it easy to transition from visual coding to bona fide programming languages such as JavaScript and Python. Tutorials walk kids through the steps of creating surprisingly complex games.

learn to code

And for teens or even adults, there’s the free, DIY Codecademy, which boasts grads who’ve gone on to create some of Time’s 50 Best Websites, and Alice, downloadable software that lets kids program 3D animations via drag-and-drop words.

Learning a new language has never been so easy.

Do your kids code? Want them to start? Let me know in the comments!

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