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Crack the Code: Low-Tech Ways to Get Kids Started with Coding

Young Hispanic siblings using digital tablet in hammock
A coder is someone who writes instructions for computers — even kids can be coders!
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Coding has become trendy in the last few years. You might have seen flyers for kids coding clubs around your neighborhood or even heard about the importance of coding in the news. But what is coding anyway? And how can caregivers and educators boost early STEM skills (like coding) for free at home and in the classroom without fancy equipment or training?

Coding is what makes our computers, smartphones and smart televisions work. Essentially, code is the instructions that tell computers what to do. Simple! Every time you open an app, scroll down the page of this website or type, the computer follows a set of instructions.

A coder is someone who writes those instructions — and even kids can be coders! As the National Association for the Education of Young Children explains, “early coding offers children experiences that integrate communication, thinking and problem-solving. These are 21st-century skills that are valuable for children’s future success in our digital world.”

Get your family or class started with the fundamentals of coding with these free games and activities.

Take the Peanut Butter and Jelly Challenge

Overhead shot of the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich . There is a sheet of paper that reads "how to make a pb+j ... step 1," indicating that the steps should be filled in.
Any activity can be broken down into a series of instructions — even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! | Stephanie Murray

Sometimes, we can use low-tech fun to learn high-tech concepts! This simple game breaks down a task, like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, into simple instructions or code. The game’s goal is to write directions for a robot to create a sandwich in your house.

First, select one grown-up to be the robot. Then, you need to spend some time writing instructions telling the robot how to create a sandwich, encouraging children to break down the task into smaller and smaller instructions to help the “robot” get from start to finish. For example, break down “Put jelly on the bread” into “Place one piece of bread, a spoon and the jelly jar on the counter. Lift the spoon and place it in the jelly jar, scooping out a quarter-sized amount of jelly. Lift the spoon out of the jar and turn it until the jelly falls onto the bread...”

Read the instructions out loud and have the robot perform those tasks. The robot should stop when it gets to a stage it does not understand. You can help children see that it is possible to break down steps into smaller instructions and make revisions as you move along. And remember to laugh and have fun trying to get the robot to create the sandwich!

As you play this free and simple game, you introduce your children to the fundamentals of coding. They are practicing writing a sequence of instructions to perform a task, and by doing so, becoming coders!

Explore More Coding at Home and in the Classroom

  • Try the free PBS KIDS ScratchJr app! With the PBS KIDS ScratchJr app, kids can create their own interactive stories and games featuring their favorite characters from “Wild Kratts,” “Nature Cat,” “WordGirl” and “Peg + Cat.” The storytelling possibilities are endless with this creative coding app for children ages 5-8.
  • Code with the Los Angeles Public Library. Join an online coding class for kids. Check the events calendar for workshops led by teen volunteers. The library is also offering a weeklong coding summer camp for girls 3-5 years old, starting July 26, 2021.
  • Flip through the pages of a coding book. Coding concepts can be as simple as reading a book! Add some fun fiction and non-fiction coding books to your storytime lunch! Some recommended titles from the library’s Kids Path list are located here. And remember, you can always find e-books, too!
  • Simon Says code! A simple game of “Simon Says” has coding concepts. Just as a computer can not perform a task without code, players can’t complete the task unless “Simon Says!” Help kids make the connection between instructions and performance.
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