Coding programs for kids: everything you & your child need to know

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The activity of learning to code is changing - and has been for a while - but the landscape is shifting more rapidly as of late. 

For instance, think about the state of coding for years and years. Mostly an advanced course reserved for university life, right? 

But then came the introduction of coding for kids, as in breaking down complex text-based coding into more consumable means for the young mind. 

This opened the doors for more and more schools to either offer their own coding courses, or at least host more coding clubs

After that, the floodgates really opened with the need for alternative learning programs, simply because of the fact that, while coding was gaining traction, many schools still weren’t able to offer courses to interested parties. 

So, students and their parents were left to look elsewhere for instruction, and with that, summer coding camps became a valuable option—where kids could blend a week of coding instruction together with summer camp fun. 

Now, and in the midst of these latter stages, coding programs are everywhere, and mainly online—which like all things “on the web” opens itself to all corners of the world. 

To reach the many different families who want and need coding experience, you have an abundance of online coding offerings, with each putting their own spin on things. How to tell them apart? Which one is right for my child?

That’s exactly what we are here to discuss today! 

We’ll take a look at not only which coding programs are available, but the different types in general, their importance, the pros and cons of each, and how to choose the best option for your child. 

Types of Coding Programs

To get things rolling, it’s important to understand the different types of coding programs available. From one-on-one to group lessons, free versus paid, and more, there are a number of factors to consider. 

Point and click, self-paced coding

What it is: Any online site or portal where a child can sit down at a computer or with a mobile device and more or less immediately begin coding on their own. Students can determine their own pace, and they can put in as much or as little time in a given session.

These options are typically gamified, which allow students to build points or status levels as they progress through the learning experience. 

Pros and cons: Gamification is a key piece to engagement, and it encourages kids to really buy into the entire process. 

But while getting started with such options is a breeze, it might be more difficult to keep kids engaged when roadblocks are encountered given the absence of a live instructor on the other end. 

And, while it might be easy to get going, there might not be enough formal structure in place to get kids to really commit to an hour or two of activity time.

One-on-one coding lessons and tutors

What it is: You can think of this as a private coding lesson, or a coding tutor, where your child is sitting down with a live instructor, and learning from them. The general idea isn’t much different than the traditional math tutor or other similar experience. 

That said, coding is different from math in many ways, with one of those being output and end result. Meaning, a child learns their multiplication tables with the end goal of knowing exactly what eight times five equals. If they need assistance, a tutor can help them arrive at that conclusion. 

But with learning to code, what’s the output? What’s the goal? Or going back to step one, what’s the starting point? There are a lot of unknowns which require more upfront structure. It’s not so much “Help, my child is having trouble learning this coding concept” and more, “My child is interested in learning to code—can you make it fun for them to do so?”

So, with coding lessons or tutoring, you might be able to select an actual project-based course on which your student can be instructed. For example, designing an arcade game in Python with the help of an instructor gives students a concrete product to work towards, plus encouragement along the way.  

Pros and cons: As you might expect, one big advantage here is the availability of a knowledgeable instructor on the other end; someone not only who can roll out curriculum and pace the class, but someone who can answer questions and potentially even personalize curriculum given each specific student's unique skills and experience level.

A potential con or downside is that success might greatly depend on the instructor or tutor, where the right or wrong one can make all of the difference in the world. 

Small group coding class

What it is: Even when school is in session, most don’t offer coding classes. So, if kids want to experience the benefits that come along with learning alongside other students, they need to look beyond the classroom. A coding summer camp has long been an option, but now with many summer camps canceled or postponed, that opportunity is moving online and to include year-round options. 

And yes, that means with the small group. To compare and contrast with the one-on-one learning session mentioned above, both of these options typically involve live instructors and structured curriculum. 

The only difference with the small group is that instead of having interaction only take place between student and instructor, kids can now work together - and importantly - socialize with others, too, as is the case with an online summer camp

Pros and cons: Potential drawbacks depend on your student and their goals. If they want a personally-dedicated deep dive into learning how to code, then one-on-one might be better. On the other hand, if your child wants a deep dive but also craves or needs social time with other students, the small group option might be best. 

Coding games

What it is: Just as the name suggests, such online coding options are set up to allow kids to learn coding through fun and games versus an actual lesson. Meaning, coding is taught through the game itself, whereas your child might be tasked to move a character from point A to point B, but can only do so using specific coding commands. These games can be browser-based, or can even be strictly mobile apps. 

Pros and cons: Games might typically do a better job at keeping kids engaged, and might cover a breadth of topics, but might not offer the depth of other online coding programs. So, games could be a great resource for getting kids interested in coding, which is always a challenge, and then showing them basics and fundamentals. 

A potential downside is of course the focus factor. Speaking more to the device than the content, a mobile device is packed full of apps and notifications that can easily distract kids. 

Types of Coding Courses

Choosing the right language for your coding programs is difficult—like deciding if you want the latest Apple device, or your old faithful hardware will work just fine.

Well, we've covered the easiest programming languages for kids in-depth before, so let's take a quick - and general - look at three solid options: Python, Java, and visual coding courses. 

Python

With Python, you’ll write half as many lines of code compared to a C++ or Java program. Python also assumes certain things to make your life easier. For example, if you make a variable equal to 4, Python goes ahead and assumes it’s a number. (What is a "variable" in programming?) 

So in Python you can just say, "Hey, make a variable that's equal to 4!" In other languages you have to be a little clearer: “Hey Java, I want to make a whole number variable, and I want it to be equal to 4.”

And that's one of many reasons why one would want to learn Python—It's one of the most concise languages you can code with.

Consider another comparison:

  • Python variable declaration: my_age = 14
  • Java variable declaration: public static int myAge = 14;

Of course, you might not have the slightest clue about any of the specifics just mentioned. And that’s OK! 

The point here is to show the differences between language options, and to say that Python will consistently be the most succinct, and thus relatively straightforward, to read and write new code. 

Java

Java and C++ programs are more likely to work as expected when you run them. That’s because if they notice anything out of the ordinary, they’ll stop you from progressing until it’s fixed. 

That being said, sometimes it’s a little too particular for beginning students. A Java error message could read (and I’m absolutely paraphrasing here):

“Dear student. You accidentally placed a single point of punctuation where I didn’t expect it. I cannot go on. You must fix this egregious error. Come back to me when it’s complete. It was on the 3rd line at the 33rd character, probably.”

However, with determination and patience, learning Java has tremendous benefits. It frequently appears in AP computer science curriculum, for one thing. Java can introduce kids to the world of professional programming, and it’s ideal for those who are already tech-savvy or have particularly analytical minds.

Visual Coding

On the other hand, visual coding offers the ability to code graphically, or "visually," usually through the use of blocks and drag-and-drop processes as opposed to doing so through text. 

With visual coding, kids can easily see the link between the code block they place and the action it produces. This connection is particularly key with younger students. They’re now not overwhelmed by what seems like an impossible task ahead of them, and instead are engaged with the fun visuals sitting at their fingertips. 

(Scratch is a great option; and here is a deeper look comparing Scratch and Python.)

Coding Programs for Kids & Teens

When it comes to the different coding programs, keep in mind that a program that suits your student’s interests undoubtedly exists...but you just have to figure out which is best. 

Meaning, like the many different apps for which “there is an app for that,” and all of the different types of summer camps that cater to specific needs, coding programs are widely available and in many different forms.

Here are a few examples:

Code.org

You've undoubtedly heard the statement more than once—all kids should learn to code. And if you've taken it upon yourself to do related opportunity digging, you’ve probably also heard of code.org, which is a nonprofit dedicated to “expanding access to computer science in schools…”

One of the ways this learning platform goes about that is through an online course catalog that offers kids the chance to learn how to make their own apps, or dive deep into coding languages like JavaScript.

And again, progression and advancement is the name of the game. Students ages 5-8 can start with "an introduction to computer science for pre-readers" before moving on to a course crafted for ages 7-11 which teaches algorithms, nested loops, and more.  

Online Private Lessons from iD Tech 

With something like iD Tech’s Online Private Lessons, kids learn through tailored 1-on-1 lessons from iD certified instructors. Yes, 1-on-1, "live" learning from real people. These are tech rockstars and top talent from elite universities who are equipped to help transform your child's interests into a potential tech career. Sessions are available year-round and can be booked according to your schedule.

Scratch

Scratch, again, is the visual, block-based programming mentioned above. It’s free, engaging, and has a wealth of learning resources due to its popularity. Of course, the experience will be limited in terms of what kids will actually be able to create, but that’s what makes it a great starting point for beginners. 

Scratch has colorful blocks, can produce fun projects, and has an active community for support and added inspiration. 

We’ve detailed scratch sprites and other block-based coding examples, but one fun Scratch project could be a “Whack em” game, where players use video and their own movements to whack sharks swimming around the ocean. 

Virtual Tech Camps

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a tech summer camp, it can be described as summer camp fun blended with courses and opportunities for kids and teens to learn coding, game design, robotics, and more.

So, then, a virtual tech camp is all of that, but now the collaborative spirit of the in-person program is moved online, with campers now experiencing structured tech courses alongside others, all from the comfort of home. 

Specifically, Virtual Tech Camps from iD Tech are the perfect online learning option for those on spring break or enduring a school closure who want to continue learning right now. Sessions are available throughout the week, in multiple time zones, with curriculum rooted in Python, Minecraft, AI, and more.

Now kids and teens can advance their tech skills, engage with other students (average of 5 max per instructor), and learn through a combination of live instruction and self-paced project development.

LightBot & Kodable

LightBot has been played "by over 20 million kids" and is a go-to teaching tool for educators worldwide. Why? Because who doesn't love a good puzzle? That's right, LightBot "secretly teaches" kids programming logic as they play and solve. you can grab the app on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon

Similarly, Kodable offers fun and interactive games for teachers and parents to help their students and children learn coding. There are a number of games to choose from, including drag-and-drop programming, character creation, level building, and more. With course names like "Build Your Own Fuzz" and "Bug World," what's not to love?

Getting started

We can’t really expect our kids to be excited about something if they can’t mentally envision themselves being successful with that thing. Sure, they also need to stretch and challenge themselves; and to go outside of their comfort zones, but it starts with making something tangible. 

It’s motivation 101—don’t just tell someone to do something...tell them why it’s important and help them go about it. 

That’s the value of instructor-led coding programs; with the guidance of experts, kids can connect the dots and make things real, and “visible” coding like Scratch, Python, Java, and more that they can literally see to believe.  

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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iD Tech is the #1 tech camp on the planet, and world leader in youth STEM education, with programs held online and at 150+ global locations (held at Stanford, NYU, Cambridge, and more) offering 50+ innovative tech courses: 

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