Coding for kids: the ultimate guide to getting started and finding success

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Learning to code seems like an impossible endeavor, right? It’s a lot like—quite literally—learning an entirely new language!

Thus, asking kids to envision themselves with the ability to, say, build an app, is a difficult enough task in itself.  

We’ve all been there…a blank slate can be a very scary, overwhelming roadblock. “How am I ever going to get to a point where coding comes easy? When will I be able to use this new skill to complete a finished project?”

Statements like these have stopped many…before they even give themselves the chance to begin.

Think about it—first you have to plan, then you have to learn, then you have to be good enough to create. But before you learn, you have to decide what it is you’re going to learn, and you need to have a great understanding that the thing you’re learning is going to pay some sort of dividend when all is said and done.

There is no way around it. It’s quite the challenge.

But please, keep reading.

Any new task always seems impossible from the start, and is in fact impossible if you don’t take all of the necessary steps—and in the right order—beforehand.

This means that jumping in with two feet could actually lead to more frustration, and even lessen the chance of follow through/success, compared to starting small, taking your time, and achieving small victories along the way.

First, what is meant by “coding for kids”

Coding for kids refers to the collection of opportunities available for children to get involved in coding. As mentioned, while it might be difficult to imagine a young mind learning something so seemingly complex, it's definitely an attainable reality. Thanks to the proliferation of many coding summer camps, programs, websites, and toys, coding can be fun and digestible.

On the most basic level, coding is how we communicate with computers, and what we use to build and run websites, apps, video games, and more. Learning to code is like learning how to speak and write in a particular language; a computer’s language. (More on that to come!)

Where do we even begin?

It’s an answer that can go a million different directions.

So, let’s start by focusing on moving one direction—forward. It doesn’t have to be a giant leap. In fact, per the above, it should really only be a small step for now.

The important thing is that with each move, your child experiences progress.

With that, we are going to navigate this twisty-turny coding for kids landscape through the various topics:

Ready?

Coding definitions

Learning a new language is difficult because without meaning, words are literally just random combinations of letters.

Thus, it’s not enough to just be able to pronounce something—you need to be able to understand what each and every word means in order to form a logical statement.

So, let’s dive into a few of the major terms your kids and teens are likely to encounter as they first embark upon their coding journey.

“Programming”

Does your son or daughter have a dog? Has your family tried to train that dog?

The goal being, of course, is that you reach a point where you give a command and the dog responds appropriately based on your instruction. “Sit.” “Stay.” “Roll over.”

When it comes time for your kids to write a program, or program, they are doing much of the same. They, as the “owner,” are communicating a set of commands to a computer, with the expectation that the computer will respond accordingly.

Of course, the difference here is that, instead of sternly vocalizing those instructions with a liver-flavored treat hidden in their hand, kids will be writing instructions in a language that kind of resembles familiar English, but has a few additional parameters and rules.

Yes, training a dog is difficult, but take comfort in the fact that if your child’s programming command is given correctly, the computer will always listen. Success with a dog could hinder on the presence or absence of a nearby, pesky squirrel.

Programming is the foundation of robotics, video games, apps, computer graphics, and much more. And, every one of these programs is a set of instructions; a sequence of short commands, one after another, with programming used as the tool to write and disseminate those individual instructions.

“Programming language”

Based on the above, the crux of programming is the associated language. In order to converse with a computer, you need to speak in terms it understands.

First, think about the English language. We have words, but we also have punctuation. There are also different rules and guidelines around when you should use a particular form of a word, and when you should opt for another.

A programming language, then is made up of its own vocabulary and set of rules—the difference is, each language is based on its own unique syntax (grammatical structure) and semantics (meaning).

And yes, “each” language—as in there are multiple programming languages; each with their own rules and use cases.

“Scratch programming”

We started by defining programming, and then talking about what a programming language is.

While there are many, many other coding terms to define, it’s useful to take a look at a term like Scratch programming, that represents a big piece of what your child might encounter as they’re first getting started.

Scratch is a MIT-developed graphical programming language, based on drag-and-drop programming basics so kids can easily create interactive stories, comics, and more.

Scratch programming is popular for kids because instead of using lines of code, youth users learn though colorful command blocks and cartoon sprites. This means that without typing a single line of code, kids can get their feet wet with programming statements and computational ideas, and begin to test their limits of creative thinking in order to problem-solve.

Dive deeper: 12 coding definitions every kid (and parent) should know

But why should kids learn to code?

Your kids are busy, as they should be. Thus, it’s hard enough finding time to fit in all of the essentials, let alone new hobbies and interests.

So, we as parents need to vet any new opportunity that comes along, and make sure it’s worth diving into.

Above anything else, in order to fit that certain something into an already-crammed schedule, it needs to check all of the boxes:

  • Is this activity worth my child’s time?
  • Is this activity something my child will enjoy?
  • Will my child have something to show for their time and effort when all is said and done?

With that, here are a few of the top reasons kids should learn to code:

Programmers are highly sought-after and well-paid  (making coding worth your child’s time)

Code.org reports that computing jobs are the #1 source of new wages in the United States, with 500,000 current job openings that span every industry and every state. These positions are also expected to grow at twice the rate of all other jobs!

With such growth and availability, it makes sense that those qualified to fill the holes will be rewarded for their skills. Computer science majors can earn 40% more than the college average!

Said simply, learning to code will increase your child’s odds of securing a lucrative STEM career.

Coding is fun and improves other skills, too (making it entertaining, and again, worth it!)

While programming is logic-based, it’s also an extremely creative activity.

Just like a blank sheet of paper and a set of colored pencils is an invitation for any artist to “go wild” with their canvas, knowing how to code allows kids to view the world through an entirely new creative lens, where they can develop the aforementioned apps, video games, websites, and more!

In addition to creativity, coding enhances problem solving skills, requiring kids to tackle large, complex hurdles by breaking them into smaller pieces.

They also learn to be persistent, as they surge through such challenges, and can improve their collaboration and communication skills by working with other kids from a variety of backgrounds along the way.

While coding still isn’t taught in many schools, other environments, like coding summer camps, can bring like-minded children together to work and problem solve as a cohesive unit.

Which coding languages are best for kids?

Looking at everything that has been presented above, I hope you’re still at a point of wanting to move forward!

Either way, this is a great place to stop and evaluate, because from here on out we will be diving into the best coding language options for your kids, while also taking a look at a few inspirational stories from kid coders themselves.

Scratch and other visual programming languages

See, I told you Scratch would be coming up again!

Since we already talked about it above, I won’t go into too much additional detail, but really, visual programming is a great way to get a young, inexperienced student into coding.

Sure, such languages don’t teach the syntax necessary in most other coding languages, but that’s OK! This is all about progress; moving forward, remember? Trying to put too much on to your child’s plate typically does more harm than good.

With Scratch and other visual programming, it’s all about the simplicity that gets kids excited about coding. The immediate gratification of dragging and dropping commands and then seeing interactive stories, games, and animations unfold is insanely powerful.

Dive deeper: Scratch summer camp course for kids.

Lua

While a little more involved and complex than a visual programming option, Lua is still a great language for kids and teens who want to pick up a language quickly.

And, I’ll pause here to state that half the battle of getting a child engaged in something new (especially when that something comes with new challenges) is connecting it to already-established interests.

So, do your kids like video games? Lua is a great for students interested in applying their newfound coding skills to game programming. In fact, the number of developers using Lua continues to rise, which translates into job availability down the road. A student equipped with such skills can jump into a variety of career options.

Plus, ever heard of Roblox? Top Lua developers who design games on Roblox can make over $1 million a year!

Just to get a taste of what kids can expect, in our Lua coding for kids course, students begin with Roblox's built-in editor to create 3D worlds and expand their functionality with Lua. From there, they can create scripts for their own game, or even sell scripts to other designers for use in their games!

Dive deeper: Kids coding languages

Just to confirm, kids can really learn this stuff?

Listen, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at this point, I don’t blame you! It’s a lot of info on top of more info, and then some.

So, now is a good time to focus less on telling, and more on showing.

It might be near impossible to think of kids or even teens finding their way with coding…especially to a point where they’ll be equipped with skills to perform in a lucrative career.

But like anything, it’s a process. Here at iD Tech, we call it the iD Tech Pathway™, which by definition, is our long-term skill development system that advancescampers’ “love and mastery” of technology over time.

But in practice, it’s the idea that, just like learning a foreign language or musical instrument, you’re going to have to dedicate more than one hour of practice. Instead, to achieve “master” status, it’s best to start young and continue to build passions and skills little by little.

Our STEM programs are set up to facilitate such a journey—kids can start as young as 7 or 10-years-old with iD Tech Camps or Alexa Café, respectively, and then continue their journey as teens with iD Coding & AI Academy, iD Game Dev Academy, or AcademyNEXT. At the end of it all, they’re in perfect position to continue their pathway into college and then eventually onward to an exciting career.

That said, we have seen students accomplish some incredible things. To help you visualize what jumping into coding can do for your child, here are a few of our favorite kid coder success stories.

Matthew has worked at some of the most prestigious companies in the world

While setting the goal to work at iconic companies like Dropbox, Facebook, and Google could be considered lofty, it’s something Matthew wanted to do for years. Once he set his mind to it, there was no stopping him!

Matthew says that his skill development started at iD Tech Camps and iD Coding & AI Academy held at Stanford. The experiences taught him things he hadn’t learned in school, and gave him the opportunity to work with industry-standard software.

He emphasizes the importance of working on projects outside of the classroom. “It doesn’t matter what you develop, as long as it’s technically challenging for you,” says Matthew. “This not only lets you build a strong portfolio, but also provides a solid foundation for passionately answering potential interview questions for your future career.”

Rebecca’s coding achievements were recognized by the White House

This iD Tech alumna was recognized by the White House after founding nonprofit CoderDojo NYC. Now, she's a Program Manager at Microsoft and a powerful advocate for girls in STEM!

“My journey began as a 14-year-old girl at iD Tech Camps held at MIT, giving me an early chance to explore my passions. Two weeks there changed my life; I was introduced to the idea of technology as a fun and exciting career, and not some lofty idea for engineers hiding in a lab,” Rebecca says.

A self-proclaimed “Jill of all trades,” Rebecca now works as a Program Manager for Microsoft for Tech Jobs Academy, a 16-week technical training program preparing talented New Yorkers for in-demand tech jobs in cloud and server administration.

Dive deeper: Rebecca’s story

Andrew’s apps have surpassed 50,000 downloads in the Apple App Store

This former iD Tech student found initial success selling his nine apps in the Apple App Store. He has since shifted his focus to running his own development companies and doing even more with his coding skills.

You would think that a list of accomplishments as long as Andrew’s would have required years to compile—but this young developer was only in college when he first started seeing success. With nine apps, 50,000 downloads, a class that he developed and taught himself, and many other endeavors, it’s amazing what this former student has achieved. Not to mention that he once thought of programming as “intimidating.”

“Prior to attending iD Coding & AI Academy held at MIT, I was intimidated by iPhone programming. I had tried to teach myself, but gave up, thinking maybe I wasn’t smart enough to program. Well, after two weeks, I was proven wrong—I left with three completed or in-progress apps.”

It’s becoming quite clear…coding has, and will continue to change the world

As the above stories showcase, coding is powerful, and those who have learned to harness those skills are making an impact.

The beauty of it all? For all that coding has given us, there is still so much out there for the changing. As technology advances, it’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a “next big thing”—that is, until it comes around again.

Thus, who says your child can’t change the world? History has repeatedly shown that whatever isn’t possible today can be possible tomorrow.

Each and every day leads to new opportunity. And our own unique environments, circumstances, and challenges allow us—and push us—to learn new things. Plus, technology is a space that is forever evolving.

There are existing problems that need better solutions, and, there will be new problems “tomorrow” that we aren’t even thinking about yet.

If your child is an aspiring coder, they’re well on your way to putting themselves in position to seize such opportunity. And to quote Walt Disney, “It’s fun to do the impossible.”

Bill Gates

For instance, before Bill Gates was “Bill Gates,” he wrote games likes tic-tac-toe in BASIC and then later, when he demonstrated his expertise in programming, was enlisted to help a contractor for his school develop payroll programs and class scheduling software.

In his words, it was “hard to tear myself away from a machine at which I could so unambiguously demonstrate success.”

Eventually, Gates would take his programming expertise and passion and apply it to a new and exciting, but unknown technology that was making big waves—personal computers.

While one camp of people was focused on making the machines themselves, Bill pushed forward with creating the software that runs them. He went on to form Microsoft, and the company would release Microsoft Windows, a graphical interface for MS-DOS on November 20, 1985, forever changing the world from there on out.

Mark Zuckerberg

And then, what about Facebook? I think we can all agree that the impact Facebook and social media platforms have had on the world are nothing short of gargantuan.

Mark Zuckerberg, while a student at Harvard, worked diligently and chipped away on a website then called “Facemash”—one that not only would change the world but would change people’s perception of data collection and how people think of personal privacy.

His initial launch wasn’t without its own set of roadblocks, with his creation being shut down by Harvard faculty, claiming the site violated copyrights, individual privacy, and security. Harvard eventually dismissed the claims and Zuckerberg was confident he was onto something.

He continued the development of the social media platform (the “face book” directory was unlike any online directory that came before it).

Today, Facebook has become a tool for political activism—and controversy. But it still touts millions and millions of users and has set the standard for social media engagement online.

Facebook created the roadmap for how social data is captured, and shared, and how it can build a multi-million dollar organization with a global influence.

Dive deeper: How coding can change the world

OK, so how do we get the ball moving?

With each of the above examples, success follows a clear process. Sure, some of us are going to be more naturally gifted in certain areas than others, but either way, we all must start at step one.

So, what is that step one?

Well, to be honest, what follows isn’t for those who are sitting down at the computer ready to program. There are online coding courses for that, in person experiences, and more.

Rather, the words below are for those who are interested in learning more; who hear about the importance of coding and want to wrap their minds around what that might mean for their kids.

So first, have them learn something. Anything. The basics, preferably.

Just like we explained through the definitions at the beginning of this post, it’s hard to learn how to do something if you can’t really formulate in your mind what that something might be.

So, have kids start with some light reading. Have them learn the basics, or watch a short video. Get them to a point where they can tell a friend or a family member about coding in a couple of sentences.

Then, have them go somewhere or talk to someone to learn a bit more.

What really helps something new and novel stick in your brain is being able to talk to someone else about it. Encourage kids to talk to a friend about how the video game they’re playing couldn’t be possible without coding. They  can also ask a robotics teacher at school about how programming powers bots.

Never underestimate the value of learning through conversation. It gives children a chance to recall what you’ve already learned while potentially learning something new by listening.

If you simply can’t find anyone in your immediate circle who cares to talk to them about programming, branch out. Visit a tech museum, have them join a related club at school. These venues not only offer the chance to learn a new skill, but they also facilitate being able to talk to like minded individuals.

Next, have them do something. Again, even if it’s something small—that’s OK.

Another potential roadblock to learning a new skill is trying to take on too much right out of the gate. They’ve just learned that programming is the basis for their favorite video games, movies, robots, and more, and they’re all in, ready to develop the next Candy Crush.

Well, while it’s certainly possible, it’s important to maintain realistic expectations.

So, start small. Have them get a feel for programming visually through a program like Scratch before they dive in to learning how to code. Or maybe they can find an app that introduces them to programming (see the resources at the end of this post). These types of activities are perfect for anyone who wants to take baby steps towards learning how to program.

Now, have them do something bigger.

Your child has now laid the groundwork and dipped their toe into the programming waters. And while it still isn’t quite time for them to shoot for the stars, they can now begin to set sights on bigger things.

To help facilitate the learning process, help them to stick to something with which they’re already familiar and enjoy. Look into creating a simple iPhone app, or Facebook game. Have them take an online course.

By sticking to areas of familiarity, they’ll be able to more easily see how different pieces fit together and are brought to life through programming.

Is there anything else kids should be doing along the way?

With all of this, is learning programming really as easy as “learning something,” “talking to someone,” and “doing something” as stated above?

Of course not.

But, for those who have been stymied by just getting up and moving, a set of guidelines so seemingly simple is a great place to get started.

Code is in fact the language of the future, and learning to code, while great to know in itself, also strengthens creativity, problem solving, and a host of other skills.

Thus, the value of learning to code isn't limited to the actual physical act of coding, as it opens doors to a variety of related opportunities as well.

In less words, learning to code is hugely important, and hopefully this guide helps you and your child take a step forward.

Coding resources

In-Person Courses & Programs

Online Learning

Blogs & Organizations

Apps

Toys

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!

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