As a middle school computer science teacher, I am often asked to recommend resources for kids who want to get their feet wet with coding. While it is my hope that one day, all students will have access to computer science as part of their everyday curriculum, the reality is that coding in the classroom before high school is not yet standard (although we’re certainly making progress!).
So, here are two of my favorite (free!) places to start your kid who wants to learn to code. And because we’re so close to the holidays, I’ve also shared my favorite starter robotics option. It costs money, because hardware isn’t often free, but it is well worth your consideration.
My students love it because: It feels like a videogame! Plus, they get to use text to code, which is rare for entry level coding resources.
Pro-Tip: Start with Python, and make sure to create an account so your student can save their progress!
Scratch: Scratch is a wonderful first foray into programming for all ages. A block-based coding language, different colors and shapes helps kids instinctively learn different programming components. Developed by MIT, Scratch not only provides a free way to start to learn to code, but also a worldwide community of students and educators sharing what they’ve created on the platform. The web-based platform includes a variety of pre-loaded characters, backdrops, and sounds, but it’s really easy to create and upload your own, as well.
My students love it because: Scratch is really the king of creative computing for kids. While block based languages sometimes come across as simple, kids can build a variety of animations and low- or high-level games within the platform. If they can dream it, they can build it!
You’ll love it because: Because it was created and managed by MIT, Scratch is a safe community for kids to join to be able to connect academically with other creative, coding kids around the globe. If you’d rather not have your child share their work, you can set their account with sharing off. Additionally, there are a variety of MIT and user created tutorials to help students learn how to build their dreams, meaning that even if you’re not a coding wizard yourself, you can still facilitate your child’s learning.
Pro-Tip: Before your child starts creating, be sure to click “Join Scratch” in the top right corner to create an account so they can save their work.
Sphero ($49.99-$149.99): Sphero is the most magical little ball robot, and it’s wildly affordable for a robot that will grow with your child. All models communicate via Bluetooth with either a phone or tablet, which kids will use to program the robot to change color, play sound, roll, and more. Using the free app, kids can choose to write code through drawing, blocks, or text, making it suitable for programmers of all ages and experience levels.
My students love it because: Honestly, it’s just really fun to race little color changing balls around the classroom. Because they have so many different programming capabilities, there’s always a new challenge to tackle, meaning every session with the Sphero is new.
You’ll love it because: It’s virtually indestructible (and even waterproof!), meaning that it’s a toy that will last for a while. And because the free app includes a variety of ways to code, it’s a toy that easily grows with your child. There’s also a variety of activities and engineering/creative challenges to facilitate learning available for free via Sphero’s site. If they’ve tried all of those, YouTube is full of videos showcasing Sphero’s abilities and what other users have built.
Pro-Tip: The Bolt is the most recent iteration of the bot and includes added function like being able to communicate with other Spheros (very cool), but the original Sprk+ still provides all of the fun and much of the coding capability at a reduced price.