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  • Writer's pictureAmy Wung Tsao

Code Those Computers!

Updated: Jan 21

A Note from Amy

Ah, the pixelated days of my youth. I remember playing Space Invaders with my dad on our first family computer. Our strategy was to divide and conquer - I would mash the space bar repeatedly while Dad controlled the arrow keys.


As I got older, we played through all the King’s Quest and Space Quest puzzle adventure games. There was nothing more satisfying than solving the puzzles to help the heroine or hero win the day!


Video game screenshot of a pixelated sunny forest. A white man in a feathered cap, red shirt, light blue pants, and black boots is walking toward another figure sitting on a log with his face in his hands.
Credit: Sierra Games

In college, my Intro to Computer Science class felt like a puzzle solving game too. I’d write a program, and it would spit out some cryptic error message. I'd tinker with the program, just to get a different error. But eventually, the program would put the grocery list in alphabetical order like I had told it to do, and I would feel like the victorious heroine.


I only took a few computer science courses, but part of me misses those days!


 

Computer Programming for Preschoolers and K-2nd Graders


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

- Steve Jobs


"Programming isn't about what you know; it's about what you can figure out.”

~ Chris Pine (author of “Learn to Program”)


Overhead photo of child-size hands touching a tablet screen with colorful visual programming blocks on the screen. The tablet is on a white table with colorful toys.
Credit: Robo Wunderkind on UnSplash

Just in time for Computer Science Education Week (December 4-10, 2023) and the Hour of Code, I’m sharing my favorite coding resources.


I know many of you are not computer programmers, but that’s ok! I specifically picked out resources that will be easy for you to understand too.


Even pre-readers can learn these foundational pre-coding skills:

  • planning instructions ahead of time

  • communicating specific instructions

  • and testing over and over until it’s right!


And for older kids who are ready to code, I’ll recommend some books and tutorials to make their own animations or simple games.


(Just a reminder - I am never paid to mention any of these resources; there are no affiliate links.)


 

Videos


from Mystery Science (YouTube)


Kids these days! They think it’s totally normal for everyone to have a computer in their pocket! But let’s talk about the history of computers, before we learn to code them, shall we?



What Is Coding? from BBC and Rumpus Animations (YouTube)


This 1 minute video gets straight to the point! Coding is just giving computers instructions in their own language. If your child can read, they may even be able to understand the very simple code in this video by themselves. If you liked this, here’s a playlist of 1-minute videos about computers.



from GoldieBlox (YouTube)


This is one woman’s story about going from an acting career, to learning to code at age 30, to getting hired at YouTube. I love the message that you can love many different things, and it's never too late to try something new! If you liked this video, Goldieblox has inspiring life story videos of a biomathematician, a nuclear engineer, and more!

 

Books



Cover illustration of a cartoon girl with braided teal hair and a big smile, typing on a keyboard with one hand. She is looking straight at the reader, gesturing to the video game background behind her. Colorful squares are coming out of the keyboard into the video game background. There is also a pixelated teal-colored cat waving behind the girl.

By Jess Hitchman and Gavin Cullen, illustrated by Leire Martin


My kids made me read this book over and over! Ava lives inside a video game, where she can create anything with code - like breakfast rollercoasters and underwater discos! But when Max Hacksalot breaks the code, can she create an even better world from scratch?


There are short bits of readable code, like “Moon.size = ‘large’” and “Sky.color = ‘purple’”, scattered throughout the illustrations. It’s simple enough to show the connection between the code she’s writing and the changes it makes in her world. A perfect way to introduce the idea of coding to a young kid!



Cover illustration of a dark-skinned girl with black pigtails and a silver robot with one wheel, both wearing sunglasses, lying on beach blankets with a smile and their hands behind their head. There is a sandcastle between them. In the corner is a “Girls who Code” logo.

by Josh Funk, illustrated by Sara Palacios


Teaching Pascal the robot to make a sandcastle is harder than it seems! So Pearl breaks the process down into small steps, then uses coding concepts like loops and if-then conditionals to code a sandcastle building program. And when the tide comes in, Pearl learns the value of reusing code again and again. This is the first book in the “How to Code” series, produced by the Girls Who Code organization.



Cover illustration of a smiling girl with long brown hair and a rainbow infinity symbol on her t-shirt, looking up at shooting stars in the sky. Next to her is a turquoise cheerful robot with a single wheel to move around, and a screen that reads “Let’s compute!” taking up most of her body.

by Komal Singh, illustrated by Ipek Konak


Ara loves big numbers, and wants to program her robot Deedee to count all the stars in the sky. She learns how to break a big problem down into small steps, write those small steps into a recipe that a computer can understand, and then test it until it works. The author is a software engineer at Google, and the story features women inspired by real-life Google engineers too!


Cover illustration of a white woman with light brown hair and large glasses, smiling thoughtfully and looking upwards. Behind her is a picture of the Moon, with rocket trajectory diagrams around it and pictures of an astronaut and a lunar lander.

by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley


Here’s a biography that combines space history and computers! Margaret Hamilton took her love for math to write computer programs that would eventually land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.


 

Activities


Usually I recommend activities that encourage independent play. But the coding activities this month actually need a grown-up to do the activity along with the kid. Just know that while these activities require a little more time from you, they’re still a lot of fun!


From Josh Darnit (YouTube)


You're a robot, and your kids have to write you a program to make a sandwich. This video from YouTuber Josh Darnit shows just how absurd you can get, like putting the whole peanut butter jar on the bread or spreading the jelly on the crust instead of on the bread face.


This fun game really does teach the key skill of planning an entire set of specific instructions ahead of time. I've seen teachers use activities like this even at the college level.


If you want more games like this, you can role-play a cleaning robot, with different levels of difficulty (and silliness!) Scroll down to “Robots & Algos” for the game here.



Scratch logo, which is a cartoon orange and white cat walking on two legs above the word SCRATCH in bubble letters.

Start Coding with Scratch Jr or Scratch!

from MIT


I started my own kids coding with Scratch. They have two versions - Scratch Jr. is aimed at pre-readers or early readers (ages 4-7), while Scratch is for older kids (8-16) with stronger reading skills.


Scratch is like an open sandbox to experiment and create. You can drag and drop any instruction blocks to program cartoon characters (called “sprites”). With a little guidance, kids can pretty quickly animate cartoon characters moving around and add sound effects.


I highly recommend playing around with it on your own before you show it to a kid.


Here’s a playlist of Scratch Jr. tutorials that really take you step-by-step through the process of making a cartoon character move, all the way to making a simple game.


And here’s a playlist of Scratch tutorials for the older child to start making animations and games. Or if you prefer a tutorial in book form, “Coding Projects in Scratch” by Jon Woodcock is a great guide for beginners!



“Hour of Code” logo in capital letters, surrounded by cartoon alien and robot dancing together against a purple starry sky background.

Or check out more coding games!

There are so many free lessons, games, and tutorials on the Hour of Code website - you can filter based on age, length, topic, and what kind of computer/device you’re using. There are even activities that require no internet, or no computer.


If you’re looking to spend money on a more self-contained game, I tried out a whole bunch of coding games, just for you! Kodable is probably my favorite game, in terms of educational value relative to cost. But CodeSpark and Tynker might have more visual appeal for some kids.)


 

Whew! That was a lot of computer talk to end the year on. Come January, I’m going back to my favorite field of science - physics. Electricity and magnetism, here we come!



Until next time, have fun lighting sparks of curiosity!

Amy Wung Tsao


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