At some point or another, you have probably seen your child playing video games and thought, “There’s gotta be a better way for them to spend that time.” Meanwhile, maybe you’ve forgotten how much time you frittered away as a kid doing the exact same thing (Hello, Pitfall!, my old friend).
If you’re looking for a good activity to engage your kids and still let them enjoy the thrill of video games, look no further than Family Coding Night! Yup, you too can join in the fun and make that previous throwaway-video-game-time into a meaningful and entertaining activity that the entire family can enjoy.
Am I Qualified?
Heck yeah, you are! The goal of Family Coding Night is to get everyone involved. There are a lot of resources out there to help, and most kid-friendly coding sites are fairly intuitive, plus they have some type of basic support. Even if you’re not the most technical person in the world, you should be able to get started with a minimum of fuss. Generally, if you can read written instructions, you’ll have everything you need.
Your first surprise will probably happen right about now; you’ll see what your child can intuit and what they’ll be able to show you (Remember programming the VCR for Mom and Dad? Yep, you’ve become your parents).
OK, You Sold Me. How Do We Start?
Great! Here are a few tools to make coding with your kids easier, and get them well on their way towards that STEM career.
1. Choose a language or technology to explore.
First things first, decide on which language or activity you want to do. You might decide this on your own to start and, as you experiment along with your child, gravitate towards your child’s particular interests.
Some technology suggestions:
- Scratch from MIT is a great little language that teaches some really good programming concepts.
- Tickle for the Mac folk (sorry Android). You can use this to program your Sphero droid, as well.
- Lightbot lets you use logic to solve a variety of puzzles. Not a programming language, per se, this one is good on a tablet.
- Hopscotch is very flexible and fun.
- Hour of Code has some great templates to engage kids, including favorites like Star Wars and Minecraft.
Go ahead and try some of these examples; there’s bound to be something out there that you and your child can enjoy together. This can be a process, so don’t feel frustrated if the first thing you try doesn’t stick. In our family, we tried Lightbot, Hopscotch, Scratch and then moved on to programming a Sphero droid. Now we stick mostly to the Hour of Code branded sites (“Star Wars” is the current favorite), Scratch, and occasionally using the Android to drive the Sphero every which way around the house.
2. Gather your equipment.
Once you decide to try something, you don’t need much, but there are a few basics that are necessary, as well as some optional things that will make for a good experience.
Depending on what you want to do for an activity, you’ll need:
- a device (with a browser)
- an internet connection
- an hour of focused time (no checking emails surreptitiously on your phone!)
- and maybe some pizza.
That’s it! Optionally, you might find the following things helpful or fun:
- a book on your language or activity of choice with some ready-made projects to try (we have “Scratch for Kids“, but beware, your child might take umbrage at the “for Dummies” branding.)
- an email address for your child (or one of your old throwaways)
- a programmable droid or drone, like a Sphero, Dash and Dot, or Lego Mindstorm EV
Be aware that while most sites will allow you to simply run code in a browser, if you want to save (or share/publish/post) the examples that your child works on, you should expect to create a login for them (or possibly use your email address) on websites where they want to save their work.
3. Get Your Family Coding!
You’re ready! Take the plunge and spend an hour or so working with your child on some simple problem solving. Some kids might dive right in, grab the mouse and never look back. Others might be more tentative, but with gentle guidance will generally enjoy it.
If your child seems lost or isn’t grasping the concept, consider starting with a more concrete experience, such as a brain-teaser app, or a logic puzzle app like Lightbot (or Lightbot Jr if they are younger).
In our house, we try to set aside an hour a week to work together on projects. At times, our 9 year old will work on her own projects without any direction. She’s really come to enjoy presenting her games and problem solving skills to us without any prodding on our part.
I want my kid to enjoy coding. How do I make sure it works out great?
Now that you know how to get started, what are some keys to success?
Be Available and Positive
Be involved with the experience; don’t check out as if they were on a solo gaming adventure and browse Facebook while they type. This is a team coding experience.
Help by being engaged and asking questions such as, “If the monkey is going to move two spaces to the right, could you group those two steps into one?” You can also draw pictures or diagrams to explain concepts, or offer the occasional opinion on the color of the background or the sprite’s hair.
Take time to think, experiment, test and reassure–“It’s OK if the rocketship only moves 10 pixels off the launchpad, we can just change the number we used for the input and try launching again!”
Enjoy the process. This is a learning experience for your child. Let your child set the pace. Resist the urge to timebox the sprint, and put the Scrum Master hat away for the evening. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, good for you! Carry on! You don’t need to “ship” this thing to make the quarterly numbers, so relax and have fun with it.
Let Your Child Do the Work
Remember to guide your child, only really stepping in when they ask or when they’re really stuck. Avoid the temptation to dive in with the immediate solution. Part of the experience is to learn to work through puzzling constraints and situations. When they get older, this will help them avoid frustration because they’ll know that by working through the process, they’ll eventually arrive at a solution. Plus, that feeling of satisfaction at solving a problem is unbeatable and it further stokes the coding fire!
Coding Builds Confidence and a Sense of Achievement
Over time, your child will get comfortable with the mechanics of problem solving and the joy in discovering solutions. They’ll begin to appreciate that there are different ways to attack puzzles and that some solutions are more elegant than others. It’s a real treat to watch the process, and to help them develop the skills necessary for jobs that don’t even exist yet.
And in the meantime, maybe they can code a sweet Pitfall! emulator for you!