One of the useful ways to use the quarantine and self-isolation period is to learn something new, and by extension, to teach your kids something new. Coding is one of such things. With enough time and focus, now is the best moment to get started. Here are a few tips on how to do it and how to make it fun.
First things first: if you feel like you’re not meant for the job because you’re not a teacher or an educator, don’t worry. Your role in teaching children coding is not as much about teaching (despite the title) as it is about guiding. Naturally, no one expects you to be a professional computer scientist (unless you are one, in which case, skip right ahead to our list of tips).
Children learn quickly and absorb new knowledge like sponges. Pushing them (gently) in the right direction, giving them the right tools, patiently following their steps, and being there when they ask for help with things they don’t yet understand might just be all that you are required to do as of now. Surely, if your kids truly become good at coding, they might outsmart you, but the positive side of that scenario is that at that point, they will be playing alone––while you will be free to do whatever you need to do. It’s a win-win situation either way!
Sidenote: If you’d like to delve deeper into the matter of why even teach coding, here’s some good news. Our blog is full of articles and success stories dedicated to the countless cognitive, motor and soft skills benefits of coding and STEM education, which you are always free to explore. Find out how coding helps develop independent thinking, problem-solving skills, cooperative skills, digital literacy, confidence, various social skills, design thinking, creativity, as well as promoting greater gender equality in children.
The bottom line is, STEM skills are the 21-st century bread-and-butter, and learning them early carries the same benefits as learning any language early.
But with the market seemingly saturated with tools and kits of all shapes, sizes, and colors, finding the right one might seem overwhelming. If you find yourself in this particular position, just follow the checklist we’ve created for rookie coder parents below, and whatever you end up buying will undoubtedly end up being a success!
Invest in a good tool
At first glance, STEM toys might seem pricier than the regular plush toy, but that is only because––unlike most plush toys––there is a lot of technology and product development supported by rigorous research and repetitive testing behind them. While a good STEM toy does not have to cost a lot, expect a reasonable investment in something that will yield results as valuable as coding skills––a skill that will serve children as an advantage in school as well as on the future job market.
More importantly, take a look at the features of the toy. Is it something children can build on, change up, something that is able to offer a different degree of difficulty as they progress (in short, a modular toy), or a toy that has one shape and form and only varies in functions? We recommend going for the modular toy––and we’ve explained why in a previous blog post. In short, they are easy to understand, customizable, encourage self-directed play (which in turn encourages independent thinking and creativity), and are usually expandable. They are great for different age groups and grow together with your kids and their cognitive abilities.
Appeal to your kids’ age group
After paying attention to the general quality of the tool you’re going to use to teach your kids coding, pay attention to the age appropriateness of this tool. Based on their cognitive development at various stages of their youth, children are able to process different levels of complexity. The youngest kids (starting around 3-5) get along well with purely visual, repetitive tasks that show immediate results (i.e. drag-and-drop controlling, programming in real-time). They still mostly believe that things only exist if they see them, cannot plan well ahead, and must, therefore, be clearly rewarded for their efforts by immediate feedback (i.e. a function working or not working).
At this point, you can easily get them started with coding tools that aren’t even electronic or don’t require a screen. Alternatively, you can use simple coding apps that do not even require a product. The important point here is that children learn to understand the logic behind coding well enough before progressing to more complex tools.
When it comes to our products, we’ve created Robo Live (controlling a robot in real-time) as a type of precursor to planned-ahead programming for the youngest children, who then graduate on to use Robo Code for pre-programmed action once they get older and are able to use multiple functions and features in sequence. The highest level of complexity we offer in terms of apps is Robo Blockly (ages 8-14), which allows for different functions to be programmed simultaneously and build complex code, including variables, functions, operators, and more. We also offer our own Python and Arduino APIs for kids who’d like to customize their Robo apps, an option for the most advanced learners.
Don’t focus on screen time
Many parents these days are concerned about screen time and the effect that it can have on a developing young child. While moderation is always reasonable, we’d like to make a case for not focusing on the screen if what it shows is only complementing the physical side of the activity. Most coding products are accompanied by an app, but the bulk of the creative work happens in the physical, real-life realm.
For instance, our apps allow children to control a real-life product, while the children spend most of their time tinkering and building the product, creating a physical concept of their end goal, even before they work on the code. The physical product is the form, while the app is what gives it ‘life’––allows it to move, make sounds, flash lights, and so on. In such, the screen is a means to an end, not an end in itself, which is actually how we should be looking at screens and electronic products in order to develop a healthy relationship with them (and not just when it comes to coding). In a way, working with coding products can help facilitate a healthier relationship with screens because it creates an interactive relationship that is clearly transgressing into the physical world, but one that the screen helps enhance.
Help them understand the basics – but let them take the lead
While coding definitely is about a goal (solving a problem), the means to do it is up to every coder. Therefore, try not to push your children towards any specific method, mostly because whatever they come up with might be a lot more fun than what you’d imagine. After all, their imagination and abstract thinking are at their peak!
Coding is about finding solutions to practical problems. To help children understand the concept of it at first, try to help them see how coding helps them already in everyday life. An alarm clock is just a small machine programmed to ring at a certain time of the day, a microwave is programmed to heat things up with different modes until they are warm enough to eat, and a recipe––well, a cooking recipe is the most basic code you can ever find, and you use it every day!
By allowing children to understand that coding is simply a way to solve problems, they will understand coding at a deeper level and won’t see it as a chore, but as something they already do every day, just in a slightly different way. Then, move on to their own coding toy and present their “problems” (tasks) to solve in the same manner. Set up exciting challenges that are all about problem-solving and practicality (such as our Robo Creator Challenge and Robo Makers Marathon).
It’s all about the journey, not the destination, after all! 😉
This ties into the previous point, but in a slightly different way. Coding should be fun, not a chore. Don’t go into this expecting your child to become a coding genius in a few weeks. Just like with everything else, let them do things at their own pace, let them express their curiosity, potential and let learning be an adventure rather than a chore. Just because STEM toys are more about learning than most other toys does not mean they are not primarily about fun. Learning through play is one of the most effective ways to make the knowledge stick!
Get together with other kids
Before you say––but that’s not safe right now!––remember, you could just do the most quarantine thing possible, and connect over a conference call! Until you’re able to meet in person, do this or at least make plans for playdates with more kids who are getting into coding (not everyone needs to have their own toy either – for instance, Robo Wunderkind is a perfect tool of collaboration for as many as 3-4 kids) once things are back to normal and we don’t have to social distance anymore.
Collaborative learning is perfect for small kids. It teaches them to listen, make compromises, promote their ideas in a group, discuss the use of different approaches, and further promotes the trial-and-error approach. Naturally, the more children, the more ideas they can share together, and the faster they can learn and advance together. Making new friends (and allowing you to take a break from being the play partner) is just another added bonus.
We hope we’ve gotten you on board to start teaching your kids how to code! If you need any more motivation, take a look at our Instagram, where we share the amazing creations of our young users.