The Biggest Subject We Should Be Teaching Kids, But Aren’t

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By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings, according to the Department of Labor. There is much debate over whether or not everyone should learn code, but in a time when communicating with a computer seems almost more important than communicating in a second language, it makes sense that computer science skills be taught to all kids as part of their curriculum. The basics of coding are not necessarily difficult to master, and starting to learn young teaches kids how to ask questions, problem solve, and see new possibilities for what they are capable of creating.

Even President Obama has advocated for computer science education in America’s high schools. “Don’t just buy a new video game. Make one. Don’t just download the latest app. Help design it. Don’t just play on your phone. Program it,” said the President in his message to promote Computer Science Education Week in 2013.

So when should kids start to learn?

There has been little research done on the ideal age to learn to code. Like reading or writing, learning to code seems to be about starting with fundamentals and building over time. If you really want to get your little one thinking like a code cruncher, there are now Code Babies books to teach little ones the ABCs of HTML, CSS, and web design.

Academics say that kids acquire language more quickly between the ages of 4 and 6, and that it’s more difficult to learn a language you were not exposed to before age 7. Therefore, it could be argued that this is the age range when kids should first be exposed to code. Most apps and interactive games for coders start for ages 5 and up, beginning with games like Daisy the Dinosaur, which help kids learn animation through drag and drop moves. Kids in this age range may not become instant coders in the same way they seem to instinctively know how tablets, cellphones, and DVRs work, but they will gain fundamental skills that will help them think of programming as a creative tool. Like scissors. Whether or not today’s code is around in 20 years, the way of thinking remains.

The real coding skills come when children develop an organic interest in how games or apps work and thereby get more involved. This tends to sink in when kids are middle school-aged or older. MIT’s Scratch language, which is designed to get kids thinking creatively and systematically through code, is recommended for kids age 8 to 16.

When kids are ready to jump in and create their own websites, Dash from General Assembly can help teach the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The online learning program moves at the individual’s pace, and offers helpful tips when they get stuck.

Why isn’t coding offered in all schools?

The one argument that seems to be made against kids learning to code is a programming language taught in elementary schools in the 1980s called Logo, which involved moving a turtle around the screen. Instructors didn’t get it, resources were scarce, and who has ever heard of Logo anyway? The whole experience has left educators unreasonably code-shy ever since, and schoolkids today are taught word processing or PowerPoint. Whether there is coding offered in your school may depend on your district and funding. Some elementary schools in the tech industry towns of Silicon Valley have added coding courses.

To fill the gaps, many organizations now provide volunteer-led, after school clubs offering instruction and resources to kids who want to code. ScratchEd, an online community that helps parents and educators get kids started with code, has helped thousands of volunteer educators start clubs around the globe. (The project began at MIT but is now at Harvard.) A similar group called Tynker is helping parents and educators start clubs of their own as well.

And there are coding camps available in a handful of states, including California, New York, and Texas, through IDTech Programming.

There is no right age

While it may be never too early to learn code, it is also never too late. Most programmers working in the industry today did not code as toddlers or teens. Many professionals got their start in college or early in their careers, and more people are learning code every day.

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