Video Games That Teach Coding Concepts Without Meaning To

Kids should learn to code. Maybe you’re already a believer. Maybe you still need convincing (if so, you might want to read this article). Either way, it’s important to understand that teaching kids to code doesn’t mean sticking your child on a strict regimen of all computer science all the time.

There are some exceptional games and apps that make learning to code fun (like Lightbot, for example), but not every bit of your child’s digital playtime needs to seem like school. In fact, this useful article from iGameMom about basic coding concepts that can be taught without even touching technology makes it clear that there are a lot of everyday video games and apps that can teach coding concepts, even if that’s not what they were meant to do. To show you how, I’ve put together this list of non-coding games and apps that teach coding concepts.

Problem Solving

Learning to code is basically learning to think. Kids use problem solving skills when they write step-by-step instructions for computers, called algorithms.

TinkerBox HD iconTinkerBox HD TinkerBox HD is a physics-based puzzle game that challenges players to accomplish mechanical goals by using various tools and items to execute complex series of actions. Sound familiar? Yep, this is a lot like writing code. Writing code requires precisely the kinds of thinking skills a game like TinkerBox HD helps kids practice: planning, and flexibility. TinkerBox HD requires that players visualize the actions needed to complete a goal, break the process down into steps, place elements, test their work, and make adjustments — nearly identical to the coding process. As with coding, TinkerBox HD puzzles often have more than one solution. And just like with coding, sometimes additional elements are needed, and sometimes things must be edited out.

TinkerBox HD screenshot

TinkerBox HD can be described in coding terms as a visual way to compose algorithms, the step-by-step instructions we write for computers.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills helps kids look at problems from a variety of angles. It’s what we use when we form an argument or solve a puzzle. Coding requires a lot of abstract and deductive thinking. In fact, algorithms often contain commands like the “if, then” statements found in formal logic.

Layton Brothers: Mystery Roomlayton-brothers-mystery-room is a mobile game that taxes users’ observation and problem solving skills as they investigate and solve crimes. Players sift through a vast amount of visual and textual information to whittle down the suspect list and make a decision about who committed a crime. This is basic Sherlock Holmes-style deduction — coming to a logical conclusion based on a few known facts — and this same kind of reasoning can be found in more complex programming solutions.

Symbolic Thought and Pattern Recognition

A sociologist will tell you that one of the distinctive characteristics of modern humans is our ability to think in symbols. There are objects — colors, shapes, patterns — that represent ideas to us. Computer code is, of course, a literal example of this. Though it may not make much sense to an outside observer, each input in a series represents an action that means something to the computer.

There are two music apps that can help your child develop mental flexibility and make practicing this kind of thinking fun:

Musyc Musyc Like Singing Fingers, Musyc uses colors, shapes, and patterns to represent different musical elements. Musyc, however, is more linear and mathematical, with sharp graphics, bold colors, geometric shapes and lines, and preset sounds that users can organize and alter. In Musyc, squares are percussive and circles and triangles are melodious.

title637469895Singing Fingers has a more organic feel than Musyc. Like finger-painting in sound, Singing Fingers allows users to draw on the screen as they make sounds and then playback their drawings as music. In Singing Fingers, the thickness, brightness, and color of a line being drawn depends entirely on the pitch, volume, and tone of sound a user makes as they draw.

Art & Design

Coding is often singularly regarded as a computer science skill, but in practice developers need to understand more than just programming languages. When it comes to a finished product, like an app or a website, good design is key. Here are two games that immerse players in art and design.

Ori and the Blind Forest screenshot

BAFTA Award-winner Ori and the Blind Forest can give your child some artistic inspiration.

Type RiderType:Rider In Type:Rider, players explore a highly stylized world full of levels based on well-known fonts like Times New Roman and Helvetica, and they learn the history of these fonts as they collect letters scattered throughout. Bonus: Looking at typefaces and thinking about letters as symbols is an immersive lesson in abstract thought — the foundation of coding.

Back to BedBack to Bed From a distance, the real time puzzler Back to Bed might be mistaken for a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali or René Magritte. In reality, it’s even weirder. Players take control of Bob, a 9-5 worker who has dozed at his desk. In each increasingly complex dreamscape, they must guide Bob back to bed safely. Here’s the catch: Bob walks in a straight line until he bumps into something, at which time he makes a single right turn and continues walking. Players must make use of the limited supply of apples in each level to turn Bob in the right direction and prevent him from running off the edge. Bonus: As with Type:Rider, the value in Back to Bed as a game that teaches coding concepts goes beyond the art and design inspiration. Anyone who has ever watched a coding algorithm play out will find Bob’s repeated forward march very familiar. Right or wrong, the code is executed, and it’s up to the player to get the pieces in place to reach the goal.

Other artsy titles include Braid and Ori and the Blind Forest.

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