Do you have a child interested in computers and other tech? To jumpstart their future tech-y careers, many apps, toys and games are available to teach coding and computer science skills to kids. The variety can be dizzying. Live Science spoke with some educators, who seem to agree that open-ended play and the ability to “scale up” in complexity as a child grows older are useful rules of thumb when deciding which ones to purchase.
“The easy advice is to look for something easy,” Mike Matthews, director of curriculum and program innovation at Katherine Delmar Burke School, a private, all-girls school in the San Francisco Bay area that offers coding opportunities within classes for its K–8 students, told Live Science. “Use really basic stuff to get kids into it.” The problem, he said, is that games can be too restrictive. “Some games at the last [most advanced] level have nothing left to do.” That means children will lose interest.
In addition, Matthews said, coding skills don’t have to be tied to computer hardware. Board games can be just as effective and fun for kids. Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, says in his book “Lifelong Kindergarten” (The MIT Press, 2017) that coding is a form of expression as much as a set of rules, and in that regard it should be taught in that way. Resnick led the group that invented the Scratch programming language, and in the book he says allowing children who use it to focus on projects, rather than solving puzzles, can help them understand how to code better, just as storytelling or writing improves literacy.
Not every coding toy has to have all the latest technological bells and whistles — sometimes simple tools suffice. Robot Turtles is a board game that is designed for children ages 3 to 8. The player has to get a turtle to a jewel on the board, by giving specific instructions. A system of cards gives the turtle directions, which can be movement or, at more advanced levels, getting around obstacles (for example, using a laser to melt an ice barrier). The point is to help kids learn to put together instructions in sequence, an essential skill in coding. One of the big selling points is that it is inexpensive (about $21.39 on Amazon) and doesn’t require batteries or an Internet connection.