We’ve been hearing a lot about kids coding these days. Whether it’s announcements that coding is the new literacy or new robot designs that could lure teens toward learning programming, it seems like everyone wants their kids to be a software engineer when they grow up.
And with a projected 1 million unfilled computer science jobs estimated for the U.S. in 2020, it’s no wonder. Who wouldn’t want a fulfilling (and high-paying) career for their offspring?
So I asked two of the sharpest programmers I know—Edward Simpson, Kinstantly’s CTO, and Anna Makarova, a Kinstantly engineer and a mom—how they’d recommend getting kids interested in coding. What they said surprised me—and I bet it’ll surprise you too.
1. Coding is all about making something useful.
Edward told me that programming wasn’t his first passion in college—biology was. His first introduction to coding was a class on APL, a programming language used by a lot of biologists. It was only after he got hooked on the feeling of asking a computer to do things for him and seeing the results he could get that he switched over to studying computer science.
A kid who has to build something inside a game in order to win that game, he added, is going to be a lot more interested in the basics of coding than a kid who feels like her computer homework is just another chore on her to-do list. That’s why approaches like Minecraft and Code.org’s Frozen-inspired games are so spot-on.
And if your kids can figure out how to train their robot to pick up all their toys so they don’t have to—well, that’s just gilding the lily. For all of you.
2. Coding is all about getting feedback that your inputs are producing an output—even if it’s not the output you expected.
Adults can put up with delayed gratification. Kids? Not so much. It’s best to give them something that will show results immediately.
One crazy idea for doing this? Teach your kid how to think like a coder without writing lines of code by having her “program” you to do something. The next time your little munchkin asks for a juice box, tell her you need to get all the specific commands, like “walk to the fridge,” “open the door,” “reach inside,” etc. If she tells you something else, try literally doing that action (though maybe draw the line if she asks you to jump out the window or something similarly dangerous). She’ll see that what she asked you to do wasn’t the next step, and revise. Et voila—the foundations of programming.
Can’t handle that for too long? That’s okay—the next step is either a programming game with instant results or some sort of interactive robot that will respond to commands.
3. Coding, when it comes down to it, is about 5 percent skill and 95 percent sheer doggedness.
Edward thinks the idea that kids learn technology faster than adults is a misperception. In reality, kids are just willing to stick with a problem longer—and they have the time and permission to do so—whereas adults throw their hands up and ask for help much sooner.
A good programmer sits and tries a lot of different variations on a theme—and is thrilled when she hits on the right solution. A bad programmer tries one variation, asks someone else for help, literally implements the exact steps the other person suggested, and then gives up when that doesn’t work.
As a parent, make sure you’re not too hasty to jump in and help, even when the robot you gave her keeps running into the wall or the character in a game keeps having issues. Working through the frustration is part of the process.
4. Coding isn’t just sitting at a computer, writing lines of Java or Ruby.
There’s a reason that education leaders have been putting an emphasis on STEM and not just coding. Anna thinks that developing logic, problem solving, mathematical, and analytical skills is a whole lot more important than learning specific programming skills. The specifics of coding can be learned at any time, any age. Fundamental reasoning skills, on the other hand, should be learned as early as possible.
Even more than that, there are at least two huge movements—the Hacker Movement (which explores everything from computer security to computer-generated art) and the Maker Movement (focused on building anything and everything, from light-up bow ties to homemade jet engines)—that are related to engineering without necessarily being focused on lines of code.
Maybe your kid is more into the hands-on mechanical side of things than the abstracted programming kind of thing. Or maybe your kid wants to explore the emerging field of biohacking (where Edward would spend his spare time, if he had any). Those interests still count, and they lead to jobs, too. It’s way more important for your kid to be passionate about what she’s doing than to focus on just one kind of coding.
Which brings me to the next point…
5. Not every kid will want to be—or should be—a coder.
At the core, someone needs to be interested in coding—and its useful outputs—in order to want to do it as a career.
A good programmer is someone who likes solving the kinds of puzzles that result when you try to make something that’s as literal as possible—a computer—do something vague.
Not everyone likes those kinds of puzzles. And that’s okay! We still need doctors and artists and teachers and lawyers—and even writers!—in life. If your kid is way more interested in a different direction, that’s great. Chances are, she’ll learn enough in school, and just naturally along with the rest of her generation, to get by technically.
And she’ll be a whole lot happier than if she’s studying something she’s not interested in.
How to get started:
If your kid wants to learn more about programming, there are plenty of great resources. A few suggestions:
- Edward suggested checking out a kid-friendly hackerspace or makerspace, like TechShop or a CoderDojo, near you.
- Or try Minecraft, Code.org, or Tynker. You can do them all at home—and no parental experience required!
Photos from top: Reese, Hacker, Reese, Hacker, Silicon Valley Code Camp, Thomas Edison I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work, Bots For Fun at the Bascom Branch Library, Girls learn science, CoderDojo Linz
- Find coding classes and camps.