Get Gaming!: Programs to Teach Your Kids How to Code

Help your kids learn essential programming and coding skills for the future with these fun, engaging, and easy-to-play games!

In the last five years, IT sector jobs have been the third fastest growing sector in Canada and number one in terms of university degree employability.  As children growing up in Canada, the best way to prepare for these jobs is through learning how to program or code.  Once you know how to program, the world truly is your oyster.  Whether you go into banking, security, design, insurance, manufacturing or marketing, you have to know how to code.

Thankfully, IT companies have recognized this and are providing this training for youth free of charge and with lots of support.  They understand their company’s’ future depends on developing the next generation of programmers and are constantly seeking new and bright minds.

One of the quickest ways to get the attention of these companies is create your own game and post it on the Apple store or Android. Learning how do project management, tell a good story, linking antecedent and result, and entering into the world of business are all also valuable skills to learn.

So how do you get started in the world of gaming?  You can start as early as ages 5 or 6.  If you go to Kodable  on any tablet, the child will learn how to virtually manipulate direction and coding.  Even Pokemon Go or Geocaching will give you the same skill set.  Once the child learns that the key is all in the sequencing and the basic commands, they are ready to move up to the next level.

As in any story, the two main elements are the characters, setting, time, and the journey through conflict and resolution.  In the next level, most of these programs provide you with one of the two elements and you create the other.  Scratch 2.0 by the folks at MIT is the classic example of being given the character and being allowed to create the journey.  Sprite the cat needs commands in order to move.  You can bring other sprites in and manipulate them to tell your story.  The versatility of Scratch is pretty amazing.  There are lots of games on Amazon, Android, and Apple that were created through Scratch and it is very easy to setup your account to do so.  And they do require parental consent for any developer under the age of 14.  

Minecraft by Mojang is the other huge program.  What I find fascinating about Minecraft is how it lends itself to collaboration, doesn’t need Internet, and you create all the characters, setting, time, and the journey.  Obviously, the tutorials and virtual world around it are more than sufficient in getting anyone started on it.

Microsoft has its Kodu program.  While it is interesting, it is certainly a step down from the other two programs.  You use their robots and create the journey.  And you can figure it out, but the support is pretty limited.  

Apple has just recently hopped into this world with Swift Playgrounds which I consider to be another level up.  It certainly has a sense of Apple familiarity with it, but it is very focused on the journey.  While the tutorials and support are great and clearly Apple is spending money on it, it is not very visually pleasing and is about teaching computer languages.

 Coding with Chrome does the same thing.  The nice thing about these programs is they give you the programming window and the action window right beside each other just like Scratch.  As soon as you code something, you can see the result.  All of these programs tend to use the Blockly language which seems to be the basic language of choice today.  Most robotics, led by Lego Mindstorms, use the Blockly language.  And like any language, once you learn one, it becomes easier to learn others because of the similarities.  

Finally, for your high school programmer, the Unity platform is now being offered for free.  And once your child is programming at this level, they are now at the professional level.

If you are more interested in the character, there are lots of options for that as well. Some are as simple as Barbie.com or avatar maker or as complicated as Sculptris. There are lots of choices in this area.  I prefer TinkerCad which lends itself to 3D printing and is the basic form of AutoCad, the most popular program today for design engineering.  If you go to Thingiverse, you will get a sense of what can be done with Tinkercad.

With all these choices offered, your daughter or son will quickly lock into their level and preference.  Depending on your setup and wifi access, you may find some of these choices aren’t realistic and that is fine.  As long as your child gets started on something, they will learn the skills they need for this next generation.

Rob More is the lead instructor for Beckwith Tech Camp and maintains a blog at Morehaven Makerspace Camp. He was named a Capital Region Educator Finalist last year for having a paperless classroom.  He is also a contributor to the CEMC Grade 5/6 POTW resource and MathFrog and serves as an advocate for people impacted by FASD.

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