Teach Kids How to Code: A Guide for Non-Programmers

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Coding is now considered an essential skill and, according to this infographic from CODE.org, one far too few kids are taught. The problem: Few parents and educators have computer programming experience. How can we teach what we don’t know?

Fortunately there are a number of apps, games, and other resources that teach coding and computational thinking to kids (and grown-ups)–even pre-readers. We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites. Please feel free to note anything we missed in the comments below, on our the Wonder Nook Facebook page, or through our Contact Us page. We’ll happily add them.

Note: We’re working on an updatest list of resources for 2017. Stay tuned!

A Non-Coder’s Guide to Kids’ Coding Apps, Games, and Programs

Note: The Wonder Nook is in no way, shape, or form affiliated with any of these programs. We just love what they are doing and want to share their work with you. It’s what we’re all about.

 

CODE.org

CODE.org is a non-profit organization committed to advancing STEM education for learners of all ages. It also works to improve a computer science diversity gap by supporting and encouraging more girls, African Americans, and other underrepresented student groups to get involved in coding.

What Is It?

This is truly a go-to resource for kids, parents, educators, and everyone else who wants to learn how to program. Anyone can sign up and learn how to code for free using interactive games, simulations, and even a few screen-free activities. CODE.org has a whole section offering teachers (and parents) a hefty coding curriculum. Some of the resources featured on the site were produced by other companies and organizations, but it’s handy to have all of them accessible in one place.

What I personally love about Code.org is that it includes short instructional videos as kids progress through the coding exercises. These videos feature programmers who make some of kids’ favorite games, like Minecraft.

Just some of the coding programs produced by, and freely available on, CODE.org:

  • Coding with Minecraft: This was by far my son’s favorite exercise. Young Minecraft fans can teach Steve and Alex how to move, mine, and build houses using an easy drag-and-drop coding interface. Light reading is required, but it wasn’t a limitation for my son when he was just beginning to sound out words.
  • Code with Anna and Elsa: This activity lets Frozen fans learn basic coding skills with the help of some of their favorite characters. Age: 8+
  • Tutorials for Beginners: This is a structured series of coding games and activities designed for even the youngest learners. Kids can learn to code with resources featuring Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and other popular themes. Age: 4-104
  • Make a Flappy Game: Have a budding game designer? This simple program lets children design their very own based on the popular Flappy Bird, though kids can choose to incorporate a shark or submarine instead. Age: 4-104
  • Play Lab: Play Lab is another fun way to introduce kids to programming fundamentals in a rich, fun way. Children can log in and design their own games and stories featuring monsters, animals, and other delightful characters.
  • Code Studio: Code Studio is a great resource for educators (and parents) who want to teach kids how to code for free. Grown-ups can create a teaching account to set up lessons. They can also set up accounts for each of their students and track their progress.

Recommended Age Groups

Anyone who wants to learn how to code, including pre-readers. Additional resources were designed specifically for educators.

How to Get Started

Visit CODE.org and set up a free account. We recommend everyone—kids, parents, teachers, other code-curious readers—begin with CODE.org’s Hour of Code challenge. Expect to be hooked.

Scratch

Scratch is a visual programming language created by MIT. According to its official website, Scratch helps children create, collaborate, and solve problems while designing interactive stories and games. Note that many other games and tools incorporate Scratch since it is so kid-friendly.

What Is It?

The Scratch website is divided into several sections: Create, Explore, and Discuss. Create offers an interface that lets kids program animations, games, and art. The Explore section compiles and categorizes student-submitted projects that demonstrate the types of things you can do with Scratch and inspire new ideas. Discuss offers forums where kids and grown-ups can ask questions and offer support to other Scratch enthusiasts.

Recommended Age Groups

The visual nature of Scratch makes it a solid resource for younger kids, visual learners, and anyone who wants to learn basic coding without actively typing code.

How to Get Started

Visit the Scratch website and sign up for a free account. There are also several (free) apps available that teach kids how to code using Scratch, like Scratch Jr. And Scratch Kids. My kids love both.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy says its mission is to promote quality education for anyone, anywhere. It offers online simulations, games, and tutorials in a handful of subjects, including computer programming for kids. This summer the Academy featured a virtual coding camp for adults, so it is clearly an adaptable program.

What Is It?

Khan Academy is a resource of tools designed to teach kids (and grown-ups) how to make animations, games, art, and websites using a variety of programming languages. Each stage and program is designed to build upon the last, so lessons range from beginner to advanced. Khan Academy also offers resources for professionals who want to use these same skills in the workplace.

Recommended Age Groups

Khan Academy is adapts to many different goals and age groups, but I’d personally set its starting age at 8.

How to Get Started

Visit Khan Academy to create a free account and browse course options for you or your little ones. Parents can then begin to work through the “Getting started” parent checklist. The organization also offers resources for teachers, but we’re not acquainted with them.

Bloxels

Bloxels from Pixel Press is a Kickstarter success story in the making. The company creates products that allow kids to create games using a balance of tangible tools and digital apps.

What Is It?

Bloxels is a unique toy that lets kids design video games using actual physical blocks. You design a level using colored blocks, snap a picture using a special app, and then customize the game’s look and feel. It’s the perfect blend of hands-on and technology-driven learning.

Recommended Age Groups

Kids or grown-ups who want to design really neat video games using hands-on materials, an accessible app, and 0 coding.

How to Get Started

Visit BloxelsBuilder.com to learn about and purchase Bloxels. I highly recommend visiting Pixel Press to check out some of their other products and apps, like Game Wizard and Floors.

Tynker

Tynker is resource that teaches kids how to code using apps, online courses, and other popular tools. Children can learn how to create games, design web apps, program robots, and interface with hardware like motors using Tynker’s visual drag-and-drop programming language, JavaScript, and Python. Tynker offers additional tools and content especially for parents and educators.

What Is It?

Tynker offers several self-paced courses, tools, and apps. Among them:

  • Guided, leveled tutorials designed to support individual learners. Children can use these tutorials to learn how to create games or enter free play mode to tinker.
  • Adventure-based coding and debugging puzzles that allow kids to use their new-found skills in different ways.
  • Coding challenges with brief quizzes designed to measure comprehension.
  • An independent game builder that incorporates step-by-step tutorials, but also allows kids to code their own projects for fun. Note that Tynker lets children design a number of different types of games using visual code. For example, kids can use its Physics Engine to design games that simulate gravity, velocity, and other basic physics principles.
  • Mobile apps featuring lots of puzzles, challenges, and more.

Note that many of Tynker’s coding courses do cost money, but are designed well. Check out Tynker’s Hour of Code to sample its work for free before you buy. You can also download its free Tynker Learn to Code app for Android or iOS. Tynker offers a Tynker for Schools app, but I’ve never personally used it.

Recommended Age Groups

Age-appropriateness varies by course and program, but Tynker offers something for children as young as 5.

How to Get Started

Tynker recommends starting with its Introduction to Programming course, but you can check out Tynker’s Hour of Code page or CODE.org to test the waters first.

Lightbot

Lightbot offers really fun apps that teach kids programming logic using puzzles, including one designed especially for little learners. These apps feature an adorable robot character (girlbots and boybots) and are available across several platforms.

What Is It?

Lightbot’s apps are a truly enjoyable way to introduce kids to programming, though plenty of adults get hooked on them, too. The apps:

  • Lightbot Jr.: Lightbot Jr. features coding puzzles for children age 4+, including pre-readers. At the time of this writing, it costs less than $3 to purchase and is available for Android, Kindle, and Apple devices.
  • Lightbot: Lightbot offers coding apps designed for slightly older children, ages 9+. It is available online for both Windows and Mac users with Flash-enabled browsers. You can also download the Lightbot app for Apple, Android, and Kindle devices. At the time of this writing, Lightbot mobile apps cost less than $3, but you can get a feel for the program via CODE.org’s Hour of Code at no cost.

Recommended Age Groups

Lighbot Jr. is suitable for children ages 4+, including pre-readers. Lightbot is geared toward children and adults age 9+.

How to Get Started

Visit Lightbot.com to view and find both apps across a number of different platforms. You can also watch demo puzzles online. Lightbot is another Hour of Code participant, so you can always test it out there before you purchase an app. Apps are reasonably priced.

Hopscotch

Hopscotch is a free app for Apple devices designed to teach kids to code.

What Is It?

Hopscotch is a free app designed for touch-friendly Apple devices. Children and adults learn can create games by simply dragging and dropping blocks of code. This is not your basic app: Hopscotch offers several different types of tools and functionalities. Among them:

  • More than 20 video tutorials that teach kids how to make games, pixel art, and more.
  • A free 7-week, project-based curriculum parents and teachers can use to teach children computer science principles and courses.
  • More than 40 fun coding challenges
  • An easy-to use, touch-friendly interface that lets kids code make their own video games. They can even share their games with others.

Recommended Age Groups

Kids and grown-ups ages 9+ with iOS devices and tablets.

How to Get Started

Download the free Hopscotch iOS app.

codeSpark

codeSpark’s mission is to deliver “Computer Science for Every Kid. Everywhere.” Its portfolio of truly engaging, all-ages coding resources suggests it takes these words to heart.

What Is It?

codeSpark teaches kids how to code in a really fun, simple way. It offers:

  • The Foos: A touch-friendly app for a variety of platforms designed to teach children as young as 5 how to code. It uses a curriculum based on MIT’s Scratch  to teach a variety of concepts, including: critical thinking, sequencing, loops, algorithms, conditionals, and more. Children use visual code to create basic programs, unlocking fun characters and adventures as they go. “Glitch Attack!” gives kids a chance to practice debugging while “Toy Boxes” allow for more creative play
  • Lesson plans for teachers available for free as part of codeSpark’s Hour of Code.

Recommended Age Groups

The target age for The Foos is children age 5 to 8, but I know older children who enjoy it just as much. It also offers a free computer science curriculum for educators.

How to Get Started

Visit codeSpark to download The Foos for one of several different platforms, including Apple, Android, and Kindle devices. The Foos also offers a web browser version for Mac and Windows. Parents and teachers can visit its Parents and Educators section to learn more about the codeSpark curriculum and access its free lesson plans.

Robot Turtles

Like Bloxels, Robot Turtle is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is also a totally screen-free way to teach kids computational thinking.

What Is It?

Robot Turtle is family-friendly board game that introduces kids to algorithmic thinking, problem-solving, and debugging. The goal is to get their turtles to their respective jewels in the middle of the board by “writing a program” with cards. Levels get progressively more difficult, adding objects to be moved, zapped, or destroyed. Parents move the turtles, following kids’ instructions, making silly sounds as they go. Pro tip: Commit to making those silly sound effects.

Recommended Age Groups

Robot Turtle is great fun for kids as young as 3 or 4, and it isn’t outgrown quickly—if at all.

How to Get Started

You can purchase Robot Turtles virtually anywhere that sells board games, including Amazon.

Kodable

Kodable offers a game-based programming curriculum for elementary-aged kids that can be implemented at home or in the classroom.

What Is It?

Kodable is really a computer science curriculum designed to teach elementary-aged children basic computer science and programming concepts using a kid-friendly game format. Students participate in 20-minute lessons once a week. According to Kodable, parents and teachers can prepare for lessons in less than 5 minutes, but it also provides Personal Professional Development tools to help. Kodable’s curriculum is Common Core aligned. Educators can review its standards here. Note that Kodable also offers a curriculum designed to be taught by parents at home.

Recommended Age Groups

Elementary-aged children at home or in the classroom.

How to Get Started

I recommend visiting Kodable’s Hour of Code page to download the Kodable app for iPad or Android devices, or to play it online. This page also features some of Kodable’s “unplugged” (screen-free) activities. Visit Kodable online to learn more about the full game and its curriculum, including pricing plans.

Codecademy

Codecademy describes itself as an education company determined to revolutionize the field by creating rich online learning experiences. I personally used the resource to learn (or, at times, to reinforce) the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, PhP, and Python. It’s a wonderful option for adults who want to learn to code at home at no cost.

What Is It?

Codecademy offers free online coding courses designed to teach several programming skills and languages, including:

  • How to build interactive websites
  • How to build web apps using Rails and AngularX
  • HTML, CSS, PhP, Python, JavaScript, and other programming languages and protocols.

Codecademy also offers a computer science curriculum designed to teach programming to children of all ages and backgrounds in a classroom setting. Visit its Teaching Resources page to learn more.

NOTE: Codecademy offers plenty of free courses, but you can also sign up for Codecademy Pro–currently $19.99/month with no contracts–to access a personalized lesson plan based your programming goals. Pro also offers lots of extra quizzes and practice projects.

Recommended Age Groups

Codecademy is an excellent resource for parents, teachers, and other grown-ups who want to learn how to program and design websites. Its online courses are also excellent for independent learners who can read, and its classroom curriculum is designed for children of all ages.

How to Get Started

Visit Codecademy online to create a free account and browse course options. Codecademy’s Hour of Code page features a free, 60-minute course designed to teach you how to design an interactive animation using JavaScript. Educators and administrators considering Codeacademy’s classroom curriculum should check out its Teaching Resources page.

Youth Digital

Youth Digital says its mission is to make “technology education accessible, engaging and fun” for children the globe over. It offers online courses, after-school programs, and summer camps for children ages 8-14. We will focus primarily on its courses for the purposes of this guide.

What Is It?

Online courses that teach kids how to code and design using a variety of languages and tools. Some of its courses:

  • Minecraft-focused courses that teach kids how to use Java to design and build servers and code “mods (modifications) to customize their gaming experience.
  • Fashion design courses that let kids illustrate and showcase their own fashion collections
  • 3D Printing & Modeling courses that teach kids how to design and print 3D models
  • Game Design courses for creating PC-based video games
  • 3D Game Design courses that let kids design models, textures, lighting, and more for 3D video games.
  • App Design courses for creating real Apple mobile apps.


Recommended Age Groups

Youth Digital’s online courses are ideal for children age 9 and up. Note that courses are not free, but the company periodically offers sales and promotional codes.

How to Get Started

Visit Youth Digital for a complete listing of its current courses, learn more about its learning management platform, and research its methodology. Homeschooling families may want to visit the company’s Homeschool page to review special programs for home-educated kids.

Thinkersmith

Thinkersmith is a non-profit organization committed to helping kids learn how to code, make, and tinker even when they don’t have access to a computer.

What Is It?

Thinkersmith designs, sells, and often gives away lessons that teach kids basic skills in areas like computer programming, binary, robotics, circuits, and more.

Recommended Age Groups

Children of all ages—even if they do not have access to a computer.

How to Get Started

Visit Thinkersmith.org to learn more about its lesson plans, many of which can be downloaded for free. You can also visit CODE.org or Computer Science Education Week to try out some of Thinkersmith’s unplugged activities.

Aimee Hosler Education Journalist
Aimee
Founder |

Aimee Hosler has a snazzy husband, two boys, a dog, and official pedagogy-nerd status. She doubles as a freelance journalist specializing K-12 and higher education in general, and PBL, maker education and creative thinking specifically. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including USA Today, TeachThought, Education World, The Global Digital Citizen Foundation, Yahoo! News, Teacher Portal and more. She lives in Virginia.


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