Writing Code on a Digital TabletI consider myself a pretty tech-savvy parent. I can find my way around a smartphone. I write my own blog. And I’m familiar with the research on how media exposure influences children.

So a few moths ago, it surprised me when my 7-year-old daughter showed me a digital story she had programmed on our tablet. I had no idea 1) that apps existed for kids to practice programming skills and 2) that my second grader had figured out how to use one of these apps before I did.

Out of curiosity, I visited the various online app stores and searched for “educational” options for children. Thousands of apps showed up. It seems like anybody can use the word “educational” these days. I found this interesting because very little research has been conducted that explores the educational value of apps meant for children. But what’s even more interesting is that most of the research that does exist all points to the educational value of apps that teach children how to code. Research is beginning to show that coding is a new form of literacy that has amazing, and perhaps essential, benefits for children.

Coding, at its most basic level, is the process of creating a sequence of instructions for a computer or other device to perform a task. I was first introduced to coding when our 4th grader participated in an after-school robotics program. She and her classmates created a mechanical contraption that could pick up blocks, move objects, and perform other tasks with the push of a few buttons. Such robotics programs are so popular among young children that hundreds of teams from elementary schools in our area participate in a robotics coding competition at a local recreation center each year.

Whether or not my daughter chooses to become a computer programmer, research shows that engaging in coding and programming activities helps kids develop important skills, such as:

  • Problem-solving
  • Social skills
  • Understanding mathematical concepts
  • Divergent thinking (the ability to think originally, or “outside the box”)
  • Metacognition (the ability to think about one’s own thoughts)
  • Sequencing, or being able to plan and order activities in the correct order

Each of these skills alone would be reason enough to encourage children’s engagement with coding. But taken together, these findings suggest that coding and programming go beyond teaching children what to think to teaching them how to think.

And here’s the cool part—kids don’t have to stay after school to participate in these types of coding challenges anymore. Thanks to apps developed by the likes of MIT and PBS programmers, kids can learn and practice these skills from almost any Internet-enabled tablet. To help parents begin to explore such coding apps, here are a few to check out:

Scratch was designed by a programming group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is a free program that allows children to design and tell their own stories through programming. Kids learn to control character movement, sounds, color, music, and more by creating a sequence of instructions for the program.

PBS KIDS ScratchJr is similar to Scratch, allowing kids to snap together programming blocks to tell stories that feature some of their favorite PBS characters from shows like Wild Kratts, WordGirl, and Peg+Cat.

Code.org has a number of simple videos and tutorials to help both kids and parents learn the basics of coding. Code.org also organizes a worldwide Hour of Code event that takes place each December (in 2017, it’s December 4–10) to encourage kids of all ages and experience levels to get familiar with coding and its benefits.

Like you, I want my kids to be media literate. I want them to get the most of the cool technology that’s available to them today. Today media literacy involves more than just knowing how to think critically about media content. It includes the ability to create content, and using apps to teach them how to code is a great place to start.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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