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Jim Markus | 11 May, 2023

In Defense of Screen Time: A Parent’s Guide to Preschool Coding

We expect our kids to learn to read, but can children really learn to code? Science says yes. Whether you anticipate chatbots revolutionizing Google Search or financial institutions investing more in blockchain technology, the next generation will benefit from an early education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

Between episodes of Bluey, I plan to introduce these concepts as soon as possible. Here’s my plan for high-value preschool coding activities, which includes some of the best coding games this year.

Two Years Without a Screen

Our daughter will not touch a screen for the first two years of her life. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that infants and toddlers don’t benefit from online media the same way they benefit from direct interactions with their caregivers. 

So, we interact with her the old-fashioned way. We talk and encourage exploration. We encourage and reward dextrous physical movements. And, despite longing for more rest, we won’t let her play on a tablet until (at least) her second birthday.

What happens after that? Coding, baby! 

Preschool Coding Ideas: Where to Start

The same Media and Young Minds article from the AAP notes that kids from 2 to 5 years old can benefit from up to one hour of high-quality video content, so long as parents, “. . . help children understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.”

That isn’t an invitation to turn on Caillou (no parent should be put through that). Instead, it’s a nod to the importance of interactive viewing.

In Kelly J. Sheehan’s preschool coding research on using a coding app while parenting, I learned that kids and adults experience high levels of engagement when using some coding apps together. I’m not surprised. Their experiment shows, “. . .that coding apps may be a rich context for STEM learning, and that specific parent-child interactions can scaffold their children's learning from STEM apps.”

I plan to start my daughter’s screen time with tried-and-true programs like Sesame Street. This show changed children’s television for Gen X and older Millennials, showing that not all programming needed to advertise a toy tie-in. It also inspired a surprising Russian adaptation.

So what’s the digital equivalent?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, FAAP opined in 2020 that, “we do not yet have a gold standard like Sesame Street in the world of educational apps.” That’s hard to dismiss. There are several popular mobile apps for kids, but nothing offers the pervasive cultural impact of the show with the big yellow bird and the trash-can monster.

When I’m ready to teach kids to code, I plan to use programs like codeSpark Academy. They offer a free 14-day trial when you apply the code FT14 during signup, and the benefits look promising. The program looks like a video game. It presents puzzles and introduces basic mathematical concepts right away. 

The codeSpark program also rewards reading, pattern recognition, and (every programmer’s favorite) automation.

Why Should We Teach Preschoolers How to Code?

Kids learn so many things from a solid STEM education, and programming is part of that. We should teach preschoolers how to code because they use the fundamentals in every other part of their education.

Coding relies on reading, logic, math, critical thinking, and creative thinking. What more could you ask for?

Computer Science Resources for Parents

After reading the literature on early-childhood development and the importance of introducing computer literacy the same way we introduce the arts, I started looking for preschool coding products. This includes the best coding apps for kids. 

I broke the list into two categories. First, I created a list of apps that introduce coding and math concepts. Next, I made an early Christmas list. That section includes the most exciting STEM toys I could find this year. If children really can learn to code, they won’t find better inspiration anywhere else.

Apps that Teach Kids to Code (and Other Resources)

codeSpark

I discussed codeSpark earlier, so I won’t dive too deep here. Suffice it to say, this preschool coding game offers a simple way to introduce math and science concepts to young minds. Note that this app doesn’t require any reading skills. It uses visual cues to introduce and solve problems.

There’s also a codespark teacher dashboard with a curriculum and activities for the classroom. Experience shows this game keeps kids engaged even before they're able to read. Neat!

ScratchJr

While some games focus on solving puzzles, ScratchJr focuses on creativity. This app gives kids the opportunity to create their own interactive stories and games. It’s recommended for ages five to seven.

If the name sounds familiar, it should! It was inspired by Scratch, MIT’s free programming language designed for kids as young as eight.

Udemy

I regularly see Udemy submissions from the community here at Hackr.io, so it’s no surprise to find courses on coding for little kids. Note that several of these curriculums focus on MIT’s Scratch language. If you want to teach kids to code, it makes sense to start with a language designed for that audience.

One of the coolest parts of the Hackr community is the ability to share, upvote, and comment on tutorials. That's where Udemy shines. As a platform, this course provider covers just about every topic you can imagine—including coding for preschoolers.

The Best Preschool Coding Toys This Year

Botley The Preschool Coding Robot

Toys like this preschool coding robot teach kids in many of the same ways as the coding apps we discussed earlier, except they have one more benefit; They don’t require a screen. With hands-on kits like Botley, kids use a controller and physical cards to create movement paths for the toy robot. I would have loved this when I was a kid.

Thames & Kosmos

Thames & Kosmos isn’t a single item. It’s a well-respected brand that specializes in STEAM (think “STEM” plus “Arts”) toys. If you know where to look, you can find deals on a variety of Thames & Kosmos products (before and during the holiday shopping season). 

 

If I needed to choose one Thames & Kosmos coding toy this year, I’d easily choose the WindBots kit. With it, kids build little wind-powered robots. It teaches the basics of robotics, engineering, and sustainable energy.

Fun Preschool Coding Activities

For now, coding remains an at-home activity for most preschoolers. I plan to start with supervised app usage and introduce various STEM toys based on my daughter’s interests. Here are a few other fun preschool coding activities to try at home:

Build a Robot Together

Choose from countless robot kits, and work through each step together. Children learn to follow the structure of step-by-step instructions and, more importantly, continue to learn after the robot is built. The best sets include coding-related activities of their own.

Design a Computer Program

Kids thrive when they use their imaginations, and programmer parents have a unique opportunity. Why not help kids bring their wildest ideas into the real world? Ask a preschooler for an idea, then get coding.

Coding with Cards

I also plan to use household items to design my own games. For example, there’s a simple coding game that only requires a deck of playing cards and a few toys. It teaches kids to give logical instructions as they guide a toy around obstacles and toward a goal.

How to Teach Kids to Code in Grade School

Assuming her school doesn’t already introduce the language, I plan to invite my daughter to code with Scratch around the age of eight. MIT designed the program for that age level. It builds on the foundations introduced by CodeAcademy and SparkJr, adding complexity.

She might take an online Scratch course, but the free online Scratch tutorial makes the language pretty easy to grasp. I plan to sit down and walk through it together. The Scratch programming language allows kids to make games, animations, and stories. So, once she understands the basics, it will be fun to see what she creates.

Of course, she may catch on quickly. 

Once she learns the basics, she may want to modify her favorite games. That’s what my friends did when I was a kid. Here’s a tip for this generation: The Roblox programming language is Lua. That should be a fun place to start.

Final Thoughts on Preschool Coding

Coding apps for young kids rarely entice young minds with specific programming languages. Instead, they structure play around the fundamentals needed for STEM. The best apps invite kids to play. They encourage critical thinking and creativity. Then, they add complexity.

The future is coding for toddlers.

I find myself awestruck at some of the advancements in preschool-level STEM education. Many coders learn to love puzzles long before they write their own programs. An early start could inspire a lifelong love of hard sciences, and that’s too important to dismiss. 

Frequently Asked Questions

These are three of the most frequently asked questions about coding for little kids.

1. Are Coding Classes Beneficial for Preschoolers?

According to the research we mentioned earlier, kids benefit from high levels of parental interaction when using coding apps. This starts after the child reaches the age of two.

2. At What Age Do Kids Start Coding?

Kids start coding, in one form or another, as soon as they’re able to understand causal events and logical orders. They might not be programming with Python in diapers, but they can certainly learn fundamentals as young as two or three years old.

3. What Code Should Kids Learn First?

When kids are ready to learn their first code, many start with ScratchJr. This leads to Scratch, then to more complicated languages.

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By Jim Markus

Jim Markus manages Hackr.io and a portfolio of sites at VentureKite. He hosted Frugal Living, a popular finance podcast, and co-created The Ink & Blood Dueling Society, a theatrical writing event that appeared at conventions across the United States. He is also an award-winning game designer.

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