Does my child actually need to learn to code?

Code code code. It seems like all we hear these days. You may be tired of it. You may even wonder if it’s all just hype. You’re not the only parent who’s asked, Does my child actually need to learn to code?

That’s a complex question. Coding is on track to become a basic skill like reading and writing. Does your child actually need to learn to code? The answer, essentially, is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

What is coding anyway?

Coding, programming, developing… what’s the difference? It seems even “techy” people can’t completely agree. After reading many, many opinion pieces by coders, programmers, and developers (here are just two), here’s what I’ve come up with. If you don’t care to get technical, feel free to skip this part and see the take-away below.

Coding – Writing instructions for a computer to execute. These “instructions” take the form of a program, game, app, web page, or web application (like Facebook). “Computer” can mean a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or other device.

Programming – What we commonly called coding before it was mainstreamed. Now that it’s simpler, more accessible, and more popular, there are a few purists who use the term “programmer” to separate themselves from the crowd, citing experience, knowledge, and ability. Snobbery aside, though, the basic acts of coding and programming are the same. Coders program and programmers code.

Developing – Here’s where there’s a real division. The general consensus is that while a coder/programmer might know one or two programming languages very well, a developer might have a working knowledge of a few languages and also have an understanding of how they work together.

The take-away: All in all these terms are pretty much interchangeable.

What if my kid doesn’t want a job in the tech industry?

It’s foolhardy to think that the job market in a decade is going to look like the job market today. It’s even more foolhardy to try to groom kids for a specific job in that nebulous future job market. However, while your child may never have a job as a programmer or developer as defined by today’s tech industry, coding skills will still be highly employable. Additionally, there’s a very real possibility that coding skills will soon be a basic requirement for many non-tech industry jobs. Even if that doesn’t happen, an extra set of skills in your child’s toolbox is always a plus.

Besides, learning to code has other very real benefits.

So what are the other benefits of learning to code?

You could say that coding is some of the best thinking practice kids can get. There’s a certain quote that’s very popular in the tech world and with proponents of coding:

“Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.”

— Steve Jobs ca. 1995

Here are a bunch of other tech gurus who think your kids should learn to code.

 

But let’s get away from the tech industry for a few minutes and take a closer look at the kind of thinking kids do when they are coding.

Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness is the skill that allows people to visualize 3-D objects in their minds. Puzzles like this one from smart-kit.com are common on IQ tests.

Charles Wang explains that programming requires a “linear, deductive, goal-oriented form of thinking.” That’s because code is a string of instructions written for a computer to understand. And when it comes to parsing code, computers are rigid and unforgiving — inflexible — which means coders need to be the opposite. And flexibility is just one component of “computational thinking,” which also involves the organization, planning, and self-awareness thinking skills. Computational thinking, the kind of thinking kids do when they code, is comprised of formal logic, trial and error, problem-solving, abstract thinking, spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, and detail orientation. (Recommended reading: this short article from KQED’s MindShift blog about the similarities between knitting and coding.)

And for kids whose parents find limit-setting of screen time to be a particularly difficult battle, coding is just one way to turn a love of digital entertainment into a practical skill. Your child wants to play Minecraft all the time? Show them the kinds of things they can do in Minecraft if they learn to code. The Minecraft-themed Hour of Code and MIT’s Scratch Studio are good places to start.

But what if my kid just doesn’t want to code?

So your child loves playing video games (or texting, or using a computer, or using web apps likes Facebook) but has no desire to develop their own games, programs, or apps. Or maybe your child isn’t all that into technology. While coding is on track to become a basic skill, it’s honestly okay if your child doesn’t like it or isn’t good at it. We still need artists and writers and mathematicians and farmers and scientists and forest rangers and doctors and veterinarians and mechanics and teachers and musicians…

With all that being said, even if your child doesn’t want to work with code they still need to develop a relationship with and appreciation for technology. Sean Blanda puts it best: “The smartest workers will be able to leverage technology to their advantage and be able to recognize the big-picture ways to utilize it. The technology will change. The means of accessing will change. But strategically implementing it will remain in constant demand for tomorrow’s workforce.”

How can I help my child learn to code without spending a ton of money?

lightbot code hour screenshot

Lightbot: Code Hour is a free app from Code.org that introduces your child to coding logic and helps them develop computational thinking skills.

There are lots of (FREE!) resources for helping your child learn to code. One of the most popular is Code.org, the organization responsible for the Hour of Code program being taught in many schools across the nation. Check out our learning guide for Code.org’s free Lightbot: Code Hour app, which introduces kids to coding logic and gives them important computational thinking practice.

We think digital play is an important part of a child’s balanced Play Diet — read why in this article. See our thinking skills page to learn more about executive functions. We mention coding as one way to expand your child’s interests beyond just playing video games, but if you feel like your child’s life revolves around Minecraft or another video game, you might want to check out this article for other suggestions. If you think your child gets too much screen time, learn how becoming the curator of their entertainment library can help.

 

Featured image art by Leah Watkins

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