We have to start by sorting through some confusion.
Coding is defined as creating instructions for a computer to follow.
But when people hear or see “computer,” they often think of something like their laptop or office desktop.
And while they wouldn’t be incorrect with such thinking, a “computer” extends beyond, reaching far into anything that can be instructed to carry out code (hence the previous definition).
Where am I going with this?
From all of that, technically, coding can’t be done without a computer. Sure, there are hands-on activities that can help kids learn coding concepts that don’t require a computer, but it’s not coding...because coding requires a computer if in fact the code is going to be brought to life.
So, I’m doing a little interpretation, (and you’re more than welcome to tell me if I’m wrong), but what you might be seeking is learning about how kids can get hands-on with coding, but without a laptop or desktop PC. Is that correct?
Hands-on coding activities
If so, I’ve got some suggestions! With each of the following, you might be tempted to write them off as toys, and fun they are, but they do offer so much more...and in this case, that "more" is valuable, hands-on coding instruction.
1. Sphero Bolt
With Sphero, kids now have a visual representation of what it’s like to teach a robot how to think. The Bolt itself is a programmable robotic ball—built to function as if it has a mind of its own, but is driven by code from your kids; code that tells it to “rock” and “roll,” and zip its way through mazes and around obstacles.
Equipped with two types of visual coding - draw mode and code blocks mode - Bolt can react to movement, move quickly with sharp directions, and detect surrounding objects. It also has an LED matrix display that supports text, shapes, and games.
In terms of coding, everything this device is capable of has been condensed to drag-and-drop blocks (“block-based coding") that can be strung together.
2. Sphero RVR
For a little off-roading, kids can again “drive” their coding adventure, only this time with the Sphero RVR, an autonomous robot car ready to traverse the world in front of it.
With programming basics, kids can create several programs to make their RVR drive, spin, turn, and change the color of its lights.
What do you get when you take a Raspberry Pi microcontroller and combine it with a laptop? A Pi-Top, which is a laptop designed to be built and used by STEM enthusiasts.
Meaning, kids can actually put together their own laptop, learning about both hardware and software, along with troubleshooting and engineering for an extremely hands-on approach to coding.
Pi-top can be used for a number of things, including:
- Playing games (like Minecraft)
- Browsing the internet
- Making music
- Writing code
- Building circuits
Think of it as a regular laptop, except one kids will build themselves! The main component is the Raspberry Pi microcontroller, which can be thought of as an affordable, lightweight motherboard (or, central computer hub).
4. LEGO Robotics
If your kids thought building their own LEGOs was fun, imagine the entertainment in physically controlling them. And if they thought controlling LEGOs was cool, then programming them and their robotic movements just simply can’t be beat!
For instance, kids can learn to teach a robot how to think thanks to sensors that can see light, react to sounds and movement, follow a set line on the floor, and even back up and turn around if the robot bumps into a wall.
With mechanical creation and drag-and-drop visual coding capabilities, LEGO building systems allow kids to get hands-on in the worlds of robotics and coding...all of course with the familiar piece-by-piece connectivity kids have grown to love.
You can’t get more “hands-on” than with a “handy” programmable computer known as the micro:bit! Even though it’s smaller than a credit card, the micro:bit does a ton in the way of bringing imagination to life.
So, where does coding come in? First of all, the micro:bit comes pre-loaded with a program already on it, which is a bit of a tutorial to give kids a taste of what's possible.
But from there, kids can utilize the MakeCode website to write and store code, and then upload their programs to get the party started!
Some example projects for kids include being able to draw their own pixel art and animated light shows in the form of hearts, smiley faces, and more.
Or, the micro:bit can function as a night light, thanks to its built-in sensors used to detect how much light is present around it. It can also be a random number generator, score keeper, rock, paper, scissors player and a whole lot more!
6. VEX Robotics
Above with LEGO, we mentioned the thrill for kids of playing with, then controlling, then programming their own robots...but let’s add another wrinkle—how about a little competition?
VEX is used in robotics competitions all over the world! One competition idea could have kids building a robot to navigate an obstacle course, while another may have them building a robot to sort colored rings!
So, kids can design the robot and program it with the commands the robot will need to complete its tasks.
Specifically, VEX Robots are programmed using C++, which is one great option when it comes to kids coding languages. Programming is done through an IDE called VEX Coding Studio, which has special tools for kids to upload programs to their robots.
Coding next steps
If anything, the above examples are great reminders that coding isn’t always what kids think it to be. While there is still plenty of “on-computer” activity, and different coding languages to learn, the first step can be a little softer.
Either way, when teaching kids to code, the goal is to keep them engaged, and one very good way of doing that is connecting coding to existing interests, and reminding young minds that the world runs on code...from their video games, apps, social media, robotics, and more.