How to teach kids to code

Like many programmers, the author is self-taught, but we need meaningful learning experiences to feed the huge future demand for coders

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Letting kids learn
How would you give today's kids get an introduction to coding? The computers we have now are more complicated than the ones I was introduced to in the mid-'80s. Part of the appeal was making a computer do anything you wanted. But today, writing a program that asked users for their name and favorite number and printing $YourName + "Sucks" on the screen that many times (one of my first programs) wouldn't have the same thrill.

I've been planning to get my youngest son deeper into computers by buying him a Raspberry Pi, a simple system that hooks into an HDMI TV and costs $25. But to begin to learn how to code, he'll need something like Logo and a language like Basic -- both updated for the Web era. One thing is clear: Even his very good private school won't give enough of an introduction.

Fortunately, some smart folks are giving serious thought to computer education. Lego Mindstorm robots programmed using a variation of C, combined with an open source application based on Ruby called Hackety Hack, appear to be an essential part of youth coding introduction for CodeNow, which teaches "underrepresented high school students" basic computer programming skills with off-campus, extracurricular training. It also gives them netbooks.

In the United Kingdom, an organization called Code Club has loftier aims: It intends to have a "code club" in 25 percent of primary schools in two years. Code clubs are afterschool activities run by volunteers. They begin with a programming language created as a joint project by the National Science Foundation and MIT called Scratch.

In New York City, we find the brainchild of Rebecca Garcia, CTO of Rebecca came from a less advantaged background than I did, but at the age of 12 she had a similar introduction to computers and was able to attend an iD computer camp (her youth was more recent than mine). This inspired Garcia to co-found CoderDojoNYC. With 20 volunteers, the group taught 100 youth on zero budget. They're developing a curriculum to take the program further.

CoderDojoNYC was itself inspired by a program called CoderDojo in Ireland. This is a somewhat informal program that, from what I can tell online, isn't particularly prescriptive of what or how to teach aside from HTML. Kids who learn HTML will do what everyone else did with it: post cat pictures. CoderDojo seems to be moderately successful -- chapters are popping up worldwide, but the quality and engagement may be inconsistent without a specific curriculum structure.

In the good ol' US of A, I might dream of something on a national level such as is being piloted in Estonia, but until then extracurricular programs and volunteer efforts will have to suffice. For my kid, I'm thinking a Raspberry Pi, a parent-led introduction to Scratch and Hackety Hack, and maybe Lego Mindstorms goes on his Hanukkah list to grandparents.

We'll see where it goes from there. Maybe the idTech summer computer camp in a year or two. Do I expect him to follow in the old man's footsteps? Probably not; he'll make his own way. But he's shown some interest and I'd be remiss not to give him a basic introduction.

This article, "How to teach kids to code," was originally published at Keep up on the latest developments in application development at For the latest business technology news, on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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