When Grant Hosford’s middle daughter took a Lego robotics class in the first grade several years ago, he was not too surprised to learn she was the only girl, or the youngest student, in the class. However, he recalls, "When I went looking for resources to support her interest, I assumed there was an 'ABCs' of computers…and I couldn’t find anything.’’
Hosford realized there was a need for something that offered fun, friendly introductions to the concepts of computing and logical thinking that would also build her interest and confidence in coding. "If you ask the average six-year-old what they think of computer science, they have no idea what it is, but if you explain it’s problem-solving using technology, they get more interested," he says.
There have been considerable strides made in teaching coding languages to children in recent years. Federal education programs and private initiatives are making computer science and technological literacy a priority for young children, according to Code.org, which advocates for every student to learn computer science and to make it a core part of school curricula.
"Research with computer programming interventions in early childhood settings has shown that children as young as five years old can master fundamental programming concepts of sequencing, logical ordering, and cause-and-effect relationships,’’ according to a report by Tufts University educators that looked specifically at the game ScratchJr.
Games that teach coding have been used successfully both in the classroom and independently, says Alice Steinglass, vice president of Product & Marketing at Code.org. Games like those found at https://code.org/learn "teach the foundational concepts of computer science and are great ways to get students to learn concepts in a way that’s friendly and motivating,’’ she says.
Once children become engaged with the early stages of online games and develop confidence, they are interested and motivated to go further and learn programming languages so they can develop their own apps and games, Steinglass adds. Code.org does not promote learning any one particular language at the outset, she says. "It’s not about the syntax, and whether or not there’s a semicolon,’’ she explains. "What’s important is, ‘I learned the concept of what’s a loop' or 'how do I take a process and break it down into a series of steps and figure out how can I accomplish this task?' For foundational beginning courses, any language is great."
The Foos launched in December 2014 and has been played by more than three million people in 172 countries, according to Hosford. It can be played by children as young as 4 who are not yet reading yet. Children are building over 30,000 games a day on the platform, he says.
CodeCombat is another game that teaches beginner and advanced students in grades 4 through 12 how to write code. However, unlike other online games, CodeCombat was designed as a completely open source project and has some 500 contributors, according to cofounder and CEO Nick Winter. While open source is "not typically done in game development,’’ Winter says he saw a big opportunity to get players involved and scale the game much further than CodeCombat programmers could on their own.
A classroom version of CodeCombat was recently launched after beta testing with about 25,000 kids around the U.S., says Winter, who also developed Skritter, a "hard-core educational app" for learning Chinese and Japanese characters, with a couple of his roommates.
Like the other games, CodeMonkey was designed to gamify teaching coding in a real programming language for ages 9-16. Although the animation "looks very childish and the early levels are very easy," that was done deliberately so players will experience success right away, says Jonathan Schor, cofounder of CodeMonkey Studios. "Then it gets into computer science concepts and fundamentals of programming, and it’s definitely challenging enough even for high school students."
The company is headquartered Tel Aviv, Israel, and CodeMonkey is used in 75% of the schools there, according to Schor, who adds that it has three million users around the world, 55% of whom are in the U.S.
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.
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