First graders squeal with delight as Cody the robot mouse follows their commands through a maze. Seventh graders lean over a laptop to scrutinize lines of code to figure out what’s stopping their LED lights from flashing and finally pinpoint the glitch in their programming. After school, it’s time for building and brainstorming as the LEGO Robotics club gears up for its first competition of the year.
The Tomlin Family Application Lab, a recently renovated and expanded STEAM center at Corbett Prep, is the home for daily discoveries in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Art of Design and Mathematics. With its interlocking dry-erase tables and Smart TV screens where students project their work, the App Lab is an ideal place for the collaboration and creativity that coding inspires.
Coding is an important skill for students to develop. It teaches problem solving, develops logical thinking and has been shown to raise standardized test scores in English, math and science. It also has a bright future, Code.org says. Students who pursue computer science in college have the potential to earn 40 percent more than the average college graduate in this rapidly growing field.
Like Corbett Prep, many schools incorporate coding into their curriculum. But students can benefit from additional practice with coding tools at home. Free apps, coding games, programming kits and more can win over reluctant coders, offer valuable practice or provide aspiring developers with learning opportunities that build their skills.
Corbett Prep App Lab Director Jessica Wallen recommends five types of coding activities designed to grab the attention of kids of all ages.
- Baking cookies. Learn coding with real, delicious cookies. Or make lasagna or any other recipe that requires steps. This is a great “pre-coding” activity that helps children develop algorithmic or sequential thinking as they see how important each step is to the end result. Wallen sometimes asks her older students how to make peanut butter and jelly, and they inevitably tell her you put peanut butter on bread. But do they remember to explain that you have to open the jar, use a knife and spread it on the bread, and then open the jelly and repeat the steps? That’s the type of detail-oriented sequential thinking you need for coding.
- Racing robots. Simple toy robots, such as the App Lab’s cheery purple mouse, introduce coding strategies to kids as young as 4. They can build a maze with tiles and program the mouse to find the cheese. Tiny Ozobots are another popular option that can be coded through an app or screen-free where students draw lines and patterns that the robot reads as commands and follows. Older elementary or middle school students may enjoy Sphero, the surprisingly cute robot ball, or want pop-culture kits for building and coding Harry Potter wands or Star Wars droids.
- Apps for all ages. Kids can code even if they are still learning to read. Scratch Jr. is a free and easy-to-use app from MIT for kids to program interactive stories and games. It’s a great lead-in to the Scratch programming language for kids ages 8-16. Kodable is another good app; young kids can arrange commands to move their loveable fuzzballs. Tynker’s three apps increase in sophistication from picture-based coding puzzles for young kids to Minecraft mods and skins for tweens and teens. Mac and iPad users will find a wealth of resources in Swift Playgrounds, games and puzzles to master Swift, an Apple programming language.
- Brainy bricks. Following instructions for any LEGO build improves sequential thinking and also increases spatial ability and understanding of engineering. Programming LEGO creations to move makes it even more fun. A LEGO robotics team challenges students to work in teams to solve problems in a friendly but competitive atmosphere. Students can also program LEGO robots at home, making robots, a cyber cat, a guitar and numerous vehicles.
- Arduino adventures. Working with Arduino is like exploring the guts of a computer, Wallen says. Students follow precise instructions to build circuits and then program them to respond in different ways, playing sounds, blinking lights, running motors, displaying text and more. Raspberry Pi mini computers are another option with coding projects for kids and families to work on together or separately.
The skills students learn through coding benefit them in any profession because they build perseverance and confidence, encourage attention to detail, inspire creativity and help students learn to break big problems into smaller solvable ones. Even better than that? It’s fun!
*Presented by Corbett Preparatory School of IDS | Originally Published in November 2021