Why Kids Should Code

A Parent’s Guide to the 21st Century Skills Children Are Learning Today

Parents across the country will be shopping for school supplies and preparing their kids for a new school year in two short months, but they’re not just picking up tissue boxes and pencils anymore. Through the lesson plans and school supplies lists, parents are catching a glimpse into a new world of education.

Technology isn’t just changing how students learn in the classroom; it is changing what they learn.

Along with the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic, today’s children are learning programming languages and the fundamentals of computer science.

Educators approach today’s students with the goal of turning them into logical thinkers and problem solvers. They engage their classes in STEAM (science, tech, engineering, art, and math) activities and challenge students to view concepts from multiple angles.

In the process, these educators teach children programming languages and how to code.

Many parents, however, are mystified by the concept of teaching kids programming and confused about the learning process. Coding sounds more like a collegiate-level skill, right?

It turns out elementary school students are uniquely qualified to think like engineers, developers, and mathematicians — as long as they have the right tools.

This guide will define exactly what tools students need to succeed in programming and development, and why it’s so important to introduce coding into the elementary school classroom.

But first, we need to explore the fascinating correlation between programming languages and other learning standards such as reading and foreign languages.

How Coding, Reading and Foreign Language Skills Work Together

Today’s parents are more connected than ever, but they might not fully understand the benefits of children learning to code at a young age. However, those skills are hugely beneficial.

Teaching a child coding and programming skills has a similar effect on her development as teaching her to read does.

Reading Helps Develop a Child’s Imagination

When you surround children with books, they tend to excel academically. Many sociologists have argued that having plenty of books in the home helps children do better in school.

This makes sense when you consider the benefits each book offers, including introductions to new concepts about history and science, new words for vocabulary building, and opportunities for critical thinking.

But Teddy Wayne, author and columnist for the New York Times, argues that books themselves aren’t the main factor in a child’s academic success. “Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically,” he writes. “It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as decor.”

That means simply having books around the house isn’t enough to introduce a child to the power of reading. Parents and teachers must show children how to engage with what’s in those books for that power to be unlocked.

As with reading, the goal of teaching programming and coding principles to young students is to introduce them to new concepts and ways of thinking — things they otherwise might not experience until later on in life.

In the same way parents reading with their kids can instill a lifelong love of imaginative thinking, parents creating games and solving problems with code can set them up for a life of curiosity and experimentation.

As Dr. Mitch Resnick famously said: “When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. It’s the same thing with coding. If you learn to code, you can code to learn.”

Young girl using a tablet in a classroom setting

Understanding How Children Learn Language

Children pick up programming concepts remarkably quickly. Where most adults struggle through Ruby or Javascript, young kids treat these concepts like games and quickly excel at them. You don’t have to look further than basic language and cognitive development to understand why.

According to Kaitlin Goodrich at Brainscape, this isn’t because kids pick up languages faster than adults; they just learn them differently.

“Kids use a part of their brains called the ‘deep motor area’ to acquire new languages,” she writes. “This is the same brain area that controls unconscious actions like tying a shoe or signing your name. … As we get older, our brain becomes more and more skilled at complex thought, and our capacity for intellectual learning grows.”

Essentially, children in their developmental years piece together different rules and associations to learn how the world works. While adults might try to dissect the Latin origins of a word, kids simply treat it as a synonym for the object at hand.

This makes sense when you consider how kids form words in the first place. Carol Bainbridge, founder of Gifts of Learning, breaks down the main stages of language acquisition.

“It’s not exactly words that children are learning,” she writes at Verywell. “What children are actually learning are morphemes. … A morpheme is just a sound or sounds that have a meaning, like the word ‘mommy’. The word ‘mommies,’ however, has two morphemes: mommy and –s. Children at this stage can recognize that the –s means ‘more than one’ and will know that when that sound is added to other words, it means the same thing.”

As kids develop words, they start to assign meanings to different objects and create if-then scenarios to navigate the world. If this sounds familiar, it’s because programming works the same way. Developers learn that adding commands can give a piece of code a certain meaning and make an app do a specific task.

As with reading, these mental if-then statements have secondary benefits beyond vocabulary building and cultural navigation. According to Language Stars, which creates foreign language programs for kids, learning a foreign language at a young age can help with other subjects such as social studies and math.

“Children who learn a foreign language at a young age also exhibit better problem-solving skills, enhanced spatial relations and heightened creativity. Learning a second language early on encourages flexible thinking and communication skills, helping children consider issues from more than one perspective.”

While parents might glow with pride at the thought of their child one day addressing the UN in Mandarin or managing a team of doctors in the Amazon in fluent Portuguese, the cognitive development and flexible thinking acquired during the learning process can be far more important during their academic careers than the actual words themselves.

How Reading and Foreign Language Helps Coding Education

The principles of reading and foreign language can also apply to coding and programming. That’s why it’s never too early to teach kids how to code: the brain development is more important than the knowledge of coding itself.  

Betsy Corcoran, CEO and founder of EdSurge, uses research to help schools make smart choices about the technology used to help their students learn. She wants to turn students into creative problem solvers, regardless of the tools they’re using.

“Kids don’t have to learn to program when they’re still teething,” she says. “It’s more important that students have a powerful context for why they’re learning programming. Students who are excited about why they’re doing something are likely to go deeper and learn more thoroughly than ones who feel that they’re being pushed into something that doesn’t resonate with them.”

Excitement certainly plays a big role in helping kids learn. Steve Isaacs, a video game design and development teacher, also thinks younger students have an advantage because they’re not afraid or intimidated by the challenge set before them.

“I believe that younger learners are not intimidated, and allowing for exploration and growing with that can be effective,” Isaacs told us in an interview. “In that regard, it might be easier compared to getting a later start with older students.”

In the same way that young learners of French aren’t worried about fluently navigating the streets of Paris, young developers aren’t intimidated by the complexities of the Internet. This lack of fear fosters the development of skills that can benefit students regardless of their future careers.

“EVERY job involves problem solving, design thinking, systems thinking, iteration, following and giving directions, and understanding what the person on the other end of the communication needs or wants,” Isaacs says. “Coding allows us to develop these skills regardless of the end goal. So, the benefits provide a shift in thinking and mindset that is beneficial regardless of the ultimate field of study.”

Setting Our Kids Up for Failure — In a Good Way

Thanh Tran, founder and CEO of AccelerateKID, works to combine the concepts of entrepreneurship and technology to let kids experience the process of building something from scratch. Tran’s classes encourage students to form their own companies and organizations to become entrepreneurs in the future. More importantly, he encourages his students to experience the frustration of watching a company fail.

“We want them to learn how to fail,” Tran says. “Failure is a huge part of [entrepreneurship]. … With your first startup, you have a 99 percent chance that you’ll fail to make a living off of it. By your third startup, you have a 50 percent chance.”

Without rent or financial responsibilities, students have softer landings if their creations don’t work out. They acquire the lessons of failure without the financial burdens that adults experience. This failure also teaches kids how to bounce back.

Further, failure is a huge part of programming and a large part of life. Zach Sims, co-founder and CEO of CodeAcademy, explains the benefits of failure in an interview with Fatherly: “You find plenty of bugs in code. How do you go through a systematic process of finding and eliminating error? In coding, you learn that it’s OK how to make mistakes as long as you know how to fix them.”

It’s better to find bugs in your code and fix them than to operate your programming and leave it vulnerable to crashes and hacking.

A boy and girl painting a birdhouse

How Coding Helps Children Develop a Capacity for Creativity

Along with cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, creativity plays a large role in early childhood education, regardless of the subject.

The Value of Creativity in Math Class

Jo Boaler, co-founder of YouCubed, which works to inspire math learners, is the first to admit that math can be a traumatizing experience for students. In her recent book, Mathematical Mindsets, she explains that one bad experience can turn students away forever:

“Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ spirits, and many adults do not move on from mathematics experiences in school if they are negative. When students get the idea they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with mathematics throughout the rest of their lives.”

Natural Math founder Dr. Maria Droujkova has also found adults carry a certain amount of “math trauma” with them, and is working to create better learning experiences for students. She found that younger kids are able to understand complex math concepts better than simple arithmetic, especially if they channel play and creative problem solving during the learning process.

“Calculations kids are forced to do are often so developmentally inappropriate, the experience amounts to torture,” she tells The Atlantic. “They also miss the essential point — that mathematics is fundamentally about patterns and structures, rather than little manipulations of numbers. … This turns many children off to math from an early age. It also prevents many others from learning math as efficiently or deeply as they might otherwise.”

Instead, teachers can use creativity in math lessons. “When elementary teachers encourage students to ask questions, make observations, and tackle problems in inventive ways, they create an environment that supports creative mathematical thinking,” writer and educator Deborah Farmer Kris says. “… When parents and educators model creative engagement with mathematics, children come to see math as more than simply a set of facts and operations.”

In an article for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Kasi Allen addresses the frustration math teachers experience when creative students shut down in their classes. “When we started doing monthly projects,” she writes. “My students dedicated a different kind of energy to [them]. The quality of the mathematics they generated never failed to impress me, especially complex calculations and graphs completed almost entirely by hand.”

Allen’s commitment to fighting “math trauma” with creativity turns a negative experience for students into something positive, which is actually a common tactic for psychologists. Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, explains how creativity fosters a sense of ownership in traumatic times.

“The product of your creation can give meaning to stressful or unpleasant experiences from the past,” he told us in an interview. “For example, if you have experienced a trauma and you create art from that trauma, you are transforming a negative experience into a positive one that can be shared with other people who have had similar experiences.”

Channeling Creativity in a Testing Environment

One of the main challenges instructors face is “teaching to the test,” where curricula are so focused on the core concepts standardized testing looks for that opportunities to foster a love of learning fall by the wayside. In fact, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of the job for teachers.

According to a study of 1,500 educators by the National Education Association (NEA), 52 percent of teachers think they spent too much time on test prep. The NEA found that teachers spend nearly a third of their classroom time on testing-related tasks.

Ironically, fostering creativity and play can better prepare students to succeed in stressful situations like standardized testing.

Nicholas Provenzano, a.k.a. The Nerdy Teacher, strives to include more creativity within the classroom by assigning open-ended projects. He assigns a topic and encourages students to explore the concept in different ways and form their own rubric and goals.

“With open-ended projects, I see a higher engagement rate in my class and a stronger understanding of the material, because they’re given the chance to explore and present in a way that’s meaningful to them,” he writes at Edutopia. “By working in a medium where they’re the most comfortable, they can explore the information more fully.”

Dr. Matthew Lynch, author of The Call to Teach, agrees that art integration can make subjects more interesting, but he has also seen its value in testing culture. “Public Middle School 223 in the Bronx — the lowest income district in all of New York — participated in a four-year arts integration program that took students from basically no arts learning to multi-faceted lesson plans with arts inclusion,” he writes at Education Week. “The results? An 8 percent improvement in language arts scores, 9 percent improvement in math scores, and less absenteeism.”

Why is this? Because instead of isolating art as a specific class, it became a part of the entire learning experience. Students learned in different ways, and became more engaged in the content. This can be seen not only in the test scores, but in the drop of absenteeism.

Creativity is where the A in STEAM comes in. Matt Zalaznick, editor for District Administration, explains how the arts provide context and make STEM subjects come together. “Injecting the arts into science, math, engineering, and technology encourages students to think creatively and critically in traditional STEM subjects that, until the recent and widespread adoption of new standards, didn’t often encourage students to think outside the box.”

By incorporating arts and creativity into the classroom, teachers can see better results in a teaching environment that highly emphasizes test scores.

Coding and Creativity Work Hand-in-Hand

Like math, coding gets a bad rap. Many adults and teachers think it’s a highly technical concept that will only click with students of a particular mindset. Belinda Wang at HTML 500 disagrees.

“Programming is an open-ended thing,” she writes. “And there is often no fixed answer. It’s not just 1+1=2; rather, I can achieve the goal by going this way, but you might do it another way.

“… There’s a lot of creativity involved, and it’s a very individual thing. Each person writes it differently than the next person. It can all be correct in terms of syntax, but maybe some solutions are more effective, maybe some are more efficient, and some are more elegant.”

Essentially, coding teaches students to solve problems by letting them choose the tools they need and form their own processes for achieving their goals.

Shantanu Sinha, founding president and COO of Khan Academy, explains that establishing a relationship between coding and creativity early on can translate into a love of development.

“If you ask some programmers what first excited them about computer science, chances are they will describe the sense of joy when they first started creating things,” he writes at Amplify. “It’s that feeling you get when you successfully build something that didn’t previously exist anywhere except in your mind. Sculptors, writers, painters, and composers are all intimately familiar with it. It’s, well, the act of being creative.”

In the same way that teachers help students become better writers and painters to express themselves, they can teach coding as a method of self-expression. This can be especially crucial to special needs students who struggle to communicate with the world around them.

“I think changing their struggles starts with keeping in mind that all kids learn differently and we need to have a menu of options to fit all kinds of learners,” Amanda Morin, author of Everything Special Education, told us in an interview.

“In addition to modifying and accommodating learners who are identified as having special needs, we need to think about personalizing learning on a larger scale. … It can help to reduce stigma if we realize that there’s no one learning profile that a majority of kids fit.”

Morin is a mom to kids with special needs and a former teacher as well as an advocate, so she sees special education from multiple angles. “Technology can mean so many different things that there isn’t one way kids can react to it.”

How Coding Gets Kids Outdoors

Camp TechTerra is a somewhat surprising example of how STEAM education supports the need for play and outdoor exploration.

Founder Susan Wells developed the camp curriculum to bring students closer to nature. “Our core belief is that all people need to spend time outdoors, and we know that digital tools can help enhance and engage people with their time in nature,” she tells us.

By combining the tools of coding and creativity, teachers, parents, and educators are able to open students up to a world or learning that was previously closed to them.

“Humans are inherently creative,” Wells says. “… Insuring time for those activities that make us human is our responsibility as educators. So much time has been taken from those activities, particularly for our youngest learners. Our students need time to grow in their questioning and wondering, to move to creating.”

A little girl drawing

Programming Benefits Beyond the Job Market

One of the main arguments for teaching kids programming is the growing job market. For every unemployed STEM professional, there are two STEM jobs that need to be filled, creating 2.4 million vacancies, according to Adecco USA.

Parents who are raising kids in a post-recession world want to make sure their children will find employment after college. However, the goal of coding and STEAM education needs to extend beyond job training. Being able to think in code logic and being able to apply programming concepts can benefit students in almost any field.

Neuroscientists have discovered the brain activity associated with activities such as programming mimic that of a foreign language more than a math problem. “For people that are fluent in a second language, studies have shown distinct developmental differences in language processing regions of the brain,” says Chris Parnin, author of Programmer, Interrupted.

One study provides evidence that programmers use language regions of the brain when they code and actually found little activation in the typical regions dedicated to mathematical thinking.

Furthermore, programming has created a new skillset for students to develop during their elementary education: computational thinking. Sarah Gretter, a PhD candidate in educational psychology and educational technology, explains what that is and how students channel it.

“Computational thinking increases students’ critical abilities to understand how Internet content is created,” she writes, “as well as their own capacity to, in turn, participate in the creation of digital content.”

Computational thinking uses pre-existing skillsets such as pattern recognition and problem decomposition that humans use to solve the problems they encounter. By introducing technology to the classroom, educators can encourage real-world problem solving skills.

The Relationship Between Computers and Education

Every year, classroom technology is improving and evolving.

Keith Heggart, a high school teacher from Sydney, explains that computer education has seen a dramatic shift in the past decade. As computers became more affordable, the educational aspect switched to using computers as tools and learning about apps and software platforms. Today, the pendulum is swinging back, and the focus has returned to the importance of learning programming languages and coding.

“While learning how to use applications on a computer is important, it doesn’t obviate the need to understand what the computer is doing,” he writes at Edutopia. “In fact, the two goals are complementary, rather than opposing. Better understanding of computer science will lead to better results with applications.”

This moves the educational focus beyond simply showing students tools and how to use them. Instead, educators can show them raw materials and challenge them to make a better tool for the job.

Cognitive psychologist Dr. Winston Sieck is an advocate of this evolution. “Beyond these cognitive developmental benefits, programming is a tool kids can use to explore more of their technologically-oriented world,” he writes at Thinker Academy.

“Computer programming is not a standalone activity, but permeates about every aspect of society today. Whether that fact excites or scares you, teaching kids to program helps them to better understand the world they live in.”

For some parents, this is an exciting time to raise young children. Grant Hosford, CEO at codeSpark, argues the digital revolution has changed the whole purpose of education.

“Education is no longer about learning facts,” he writes at Getting Smart. “Facts are at our fingertips at all times. Learning is now about quickly sourcing reliable information, creative problem solving, logical thinking, self-management, and mental flexibility.”

Kids at one time had to memorize their multiplication tables. Now, they have access to advanced math tools on their phones. As such, it’s more important for students to understand the logic behind multiplication so it can be applied to solving other problems

Students presenting in class

How Teachers Can Harness the Programming Learning Style

David Andrade, a K–12 education strategist, works with school districts to assist them with selecting and implementing technology. He has found that even schools with budget constraints can take advantage of tools for coding and programming.  

“Look for free apps (like Google Apps for Education and thousands of others) over paid versions; use Chromebooks for student devices (as they are inexpensive, easy to use, easy to manage, and shareable); and use your in-house experts (your own teachers) to share what they are doing with other teachers,” he says.

Andrade is a former engineer and has a strong background in programming principles and problem solving, making him a huge asset to his school system.

Like all education materials, the key with technology is to find something that teachers and students will enjoy using. If both parties aren’t engaged, then the classroom technology and STEAM lessons will fall by the wayside.

“We’re asking our schools to teach students a wide range of skills, knowledge and capabilities. Whenever we’ve tried to do more with the same (or fewer) resources, we’ve invented tools to help us do that,” Corcoran at EdSurge says. “But — and it’s a big ‘but’ — teachers need a voice in deciding which tools will best support their teaching and their students’ learning. Foisting a tech tool on a teacher who would rather use a different tool won’t help students.”

Fortunately, there’s a veritable army of passionate STEAM educators, professionals, and edtech companies looking to match the latest tools with the right teachers. For example, in October 2015, the California STEM Symposium reached attendance rates of 3,100 teachers and school administrators to learn about the latest lesson plans and ideas. There were more than 300 roundtables and workshops dedicated to teaching STEAM-oriented classes. And this is but one opportunity for educators to come together and brainstorm ways to inspire their students.

Programming isn’t just a tool for students to use; it’s a way of thinking and approaching challenges. By introducing the concepts of coding to young students, we set them up for a lifetime of creative problem solving, abstract thinking, and logical decision making — preparing them for any challenges their lives or their careers throw at them.

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