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From Dabbling to Doing: 6 Tools That Excite Kids About Coding

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 (Screengrab of CodeMonkey)

By Tanner Higgin, Common Sense Education

It’s clear coding and computer science have become key priorities in K-12 education. From’s massive round of funding and the formulation of the Computer Science Coalition to President Obama’s Computer Science For All initiative to big school districts, like the San Francisco Unified School District, building K-12 computer science curriculum – there’s indications that this is more than a passing fad.

Many educators are excited about the opportunities coding and computer science offer students, but with these new curricular priorities come the major practical, pedagogical challenges of building a scope and sequence and then transforming it into units and lessons (not to mention, you know, teaching). Given the problems computer science has had meeting the needs of all students -- especially early on -- there’s some tough challenges ahead for school leaders and educators to make sure computer science for all doesn’t fall flat.

If we just focus on the coding part of the equation (computer science is its own set of challenges), there’s some good news. Learning designers have been hard at work cracking three of the biggest make or break challenges facing learn to code initiatives: hooking kids (especially girls) early, crossing the chasm between drag-and-drop and written code, and providing interest-driven projects that fuel learning outside school.

Below I’ve highlighted some great coding apps and websites already out there that tackle these three big challenges in inventive ways, providing opportunities for learners of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to dabble then dive-in to coding.


Hooking kids early

Tools that spark interest in coding through creativity and puzzle solving while teaching the basic premises of logic and sequencing.

Scratch, as far as learning tools go, is a classic, and for good reason. It distills down the basic core competencies of programming into an easy to use and manipulate visual block system that’s been adopted by numerous other tools. What distinguishes Scratch though is its boundless creative possibilities and healthy community which encourage learners to express themselves and share their work. It’s the perfect option for creative kids.

Cork The Volcano -- Puzzlets
For many early learners, it can be useful to supplement digital coding and interaction with physical, hands-on activity. Cork the Volcano, an app for the Puzzlets platform, uses a similar, but stripped-down, visual block system like Scratch, and focuses on puzzle solving rather than creation. Kids sequence physical blocks on a game board in front of them that causes things to move and behave in the puzzle game. It can be an effective way to jumpstart interest in programmatic thinking for those kids that love problem solving.

Crossing the chasm

Tools that move kids elegantly toward writing actual code and learning languages and syntax while still providing engaging contexts.

GameMaker: Studio
For Scratch users, GameMaker provides a nice next step. It still has the drag-and-drop elements of Scratch as well as the all-in-one experience of design, art asset creation, and coding, but introduces much more fine-tuned control and incredible depth. GameMaker will level-up along with kids’ sensibilities, allowing them to more fully realize the types of games they envision.

If GameMaker is a bit too much, CodeMonkey is a nice option for easing into more complex platforms. Like Puzzlets, CodeMonkey uses problem solving to motivate curious kids. Unlike Puzzlets, however, CodeMonkey is entirely digital. CodeMonkey also leaps across the chasm, introducing kids to written scripting using CoffeScript, a great introductory language that’ll help kids learn syntax.

Harnessing interests

Tools that expand the horizons to what code can do, showing kids how code can be useful no matter their interests and background.

Google CS First
More curriculum than tool, Google CS First provides instructional support for kids in grades 4-8 to learn actual coding. The key with CS First, though, is that it allows kids to choose from a set of varied interests (everything from fashion to sports to music), and then uses those topics to drive coding projects. There are also grab-and-go resources for educators to start up clubs in their schools or communities.

From Instagram to Snapchat to Facebook, just about every teen uses some kind of social media. Vidcode uses the established grammar of social media -- filters, memes, and animation -- as an irresistible context for creative JavaScript coding projects that are genuinely fun and relevant to teens. Paid upgrades also add advanced tutorials as well as curriculum and lesson plans educators can use to get whole classes up and running.

Of course, there’s much more out there. We’ve got Top Picks lists featuring many more tools over on Common Sense Education for elementary, middle school, and high school you can check out. And don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing that these tools solve the problem of computer science for all (after all, I’ve only focused on coding), or that these are the only three challenges facing such an ambitious shift in K-12 education. However, if the promise of computer science for all has hope of being achieved, we need to beyond traditional curricular approaches. We need to supplement or reinvent curriculum with informal resources – the kinds of passion-driven, authentic experiences much better equipped to ignite meaningful interest.

Tanner Higgin is senior manager, education content at Common Sense Educationwhich helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources, including full reviews of digital tools.

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