Coding is everywhere! It permeates every aspect of our daily lives. Children frequently use coding but may not realize it. Coding is the process of arranging symbols in a specific pattern to produce a reaction — it is a way of communicating.
Watch any gamer frantically hit the “A” button while playing their favorite video game to get a character to jump over obstacles, observe how people stop at a stop sign or think about the ways we read sheet music while playing an instrument — these are all examples of people interacting with code.
You don’t need a TV, computer or tablet to explore coding. Have you ever played the Candy Land® game with colored squares? By moving your character to these squares in response to a matching card, you were reading code!
How we introduce children to coding
More than 20 years ago, while at MIT, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Radia Perlman created the first technology that allowed young, preliterate children to perform computer programming. This past year, we asked her for the best methods to teach children the foundation of coding and computational thinking.
Radia gave us great insight! She told us to “know what problem you are trying to solve before you try to solve it.” This simple advice has prompted us to emphasize being thoughtful and empathetic while employing design thinking.
For example, in an activity developed for the Invention Project® program, participants were challenged to redesign earbuds by first exploring market research to find out what kinds of problems their designs should address. We had children watch video clips of people using earbuds, so they could see for themselves the challenges people encounter with these devices. They then applied personal observations in design thinking to create consumer-friendly solutions.
Our Camp Invention®program Epic has also introduced children to key coding concepts. This program’s participants heard the story of NIHF Inductee Barbara Liskov, a computer programming language pioneer, before engaging in hands-on activities. In one of this program’s activities, The Lab: Where Pigs Fly, each camper was challenged to create a beaded bracelet that codes for their name using the binary language, with 0s and 1s representing letters. Also in this program, campers made secret messages with stamps for their friends to decode, and they discovered how to match up different LED prong lengths to change the color of lights while exploring squid communication.
How early can children begin to explore coding?
No child is too young to start coding. That’s why the Invention Playground® program explores programming and other STEM concepts with preschoolers.
In one experience we designed for this preschool program, participants work together to compose a piece of music by arranging cards with images of musical instruments on a wall, coding the order in which the instruments will play. They discover that placing multiple instrument cards vertically codes all the instruments to play simultaneously.
The program also includes an activity in which preschoolers are asked to move in different ways (e.g., jump) when they are shown various colors. They take the coding a step further by combining movements when the color they are shown is a combination of two other colors. For example, if yellow prompts them to spin and blue prompts them to jump, when they see the color green, they must spin and jump.
Coding is a highly creative tool that inspires critical thinking and enables people to communicate ideas in new and innovative ways. Take a fresh look at the symbols around you and be inspired to get children of all ages problem solving and coding. After all, it is an important language of their world!