Teaching Kids to Program

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, we'll cover some basic methods of introducing kids to programming and a few tools to allow them to build their programming confidence. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Teaching Kids to Program

Computers have never been a more integral part of daily life. Virtually everyone uses some sort of technological device on a daily basis, whether it's a phone to check your email, a tablet to play games, or a desktop to do work. Kids are using these tools at younger and younger ages. It's not unheard of for a baby still in diapers to be handed a smartphone or tablet and for them to be able to open programs and play basic games.

In this lesson, we're going to cover some basic tools and techniques that can be used to teach programming to children, but first we have to determine exactly what that means. When referring to programming, this means that we are giving a computer a series of instructions to execute. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. In the olden days, this exclusively meant writing code, or a series of written commands in a language shared between the programmer and machine. Now, thanks to the pioneers of yesteryear, we can introduce computer programming using graphical interfaces, making it a much simpler process. Never before has understanding computer programming been so vital and so simple.

Programming Introduction

A great way to introduce kids to computer programming is through games they already know and love. Are they a huge fan of Angry Birds or Minecraft? That was programmed! When they begin to understand how their favorite games were made, their natural curiosity will take over.

Once they have a desire to program, there is an important first step any programmer must go through. Since the dawn of programming, the first code most every programmer has ever written has been the famous 'Hello, world!' program. This simplest of programs has been used to introduce generations of programmers to the joys of coding. Bill Gates would have started with this famous bit of code as well. Though it can be done in hundreds of manners depending on the software being used, a classic that is available on most Windows-based computers is the DOS command prompt. Simply go to the Start menu and type in 'cmd', which will bring up the DOS window. From there, all you need to type is 'echo Hello, world!' and press enter. This will display the famous command, and you've now written one of the most famous lines of code in programming history!

Learning Tools

Now that your student has been introduced to the bare bones of computer programming, it's time for them to get their hands dirty. Well, as dirty as one's hands get when typing. There are a multitude of websites, books, and programs available to help children learn to program, but we'll highlight a few ways to slowly introduce them to programming and build their confidence.

The easiest way to start teaching programming is with an app or program that provides the student with the fundamentals of programming. The best tool created for this is called Scratch, which was created by a team of computer scientists at MIT. It does an amazing job of breaking down the syntax of code into a visual form, demonstrating to students how certain elements fit or don't fit. Students build their program like a puzzle, and it is quick and easy to learn, which will allow students to begin programming in no time!

Another method is to provide them with partially completed programs. These are available by searching through a search engine. If you feel confident in your programming abilities, you can create one too. This allows your student to see the fundamentals of what goes into a working program, but with one or two pieces missing that they can fill in. A second method is to take an existing program and add more detail or additional steps. Both of these will give them a sense of accomplishment, and they'll learn what correct programs look like.

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