Better Summer Screen Time: Books and Websites for Engaging Kids

3 years ago

Every year, I put together my own mini summer school for my twins because I'm mean. Wait, no, it's because I see summer as a time to not only get ahead and set up a strong start to a new school year, but also as a time to work in all the supplemental pieces that fall by the wayside during school.

For us, that is computer programming.

Our school does Hour of Code, and the kids spend time in the computer lab. But their screen time in the classroom consists mostly of using computers for word processing or Internet research.

What about Booleans? What about variables?

The fact is that we're not really preparing our kids for the jobs of tomorrow. Well, I mean, we are in the sense that writing and math will still play a huge role in their success in the future. But kids need to be exposed to programming at a young age so they see that it isn't a scary, confusing thing.

And I say that as someone with no computer science background.

Yes, everything I teach my kids I taught myself. I'm only a few steps ahead of them, squeezing in lessons at night. I'm not particularly comfortable with computer science, but I've found amazing resources that can help even a writer like myself learn Javascript, Python, and Ruby.

So here are the books and websites I'm recommending to get your kids started this summer.

Books

I've long been a fan of No Starch books; namely, their kid-friendly series. Let's face it, I will likely never understand the books aimed at my age group, but the kid-friendly ones? Those are the ones I use to teach myself and the twins new languages.

They've gone a step beyond with their latest book: Teach Your Kids to Code. It's exactly that: a parental guide for helping your child learn Python, no prior computer science experience necessary.

The book is set up with short lessons that you can do with your child, coaching you on interesting things you can point out depending on the age of your child. By the end of the first day, your child will know how to make their own Mad Libs-like game using Python.

And it only grows from there with turtle graphics and game making. Kids can learn basic programming ideas that cross languages such as variables, strings, and conditionals. The writing is simple and straightforward making it a pleasure to read and easy to understand.

It's so straightforward that you could easily hand this book to a child in upper elementary school or beyond and have them teach themselves. A win in my book when it comes to summer activities.

(Sidenote: While you can get their books at any bookstore (online or brick-and-mortar), they offer a 30% discount coupon on the site under the coupon code: COOLKIDS.)

Other No Starch books I can recommend: Javascript for Kids (this was the book that made programming click in my head), Python for Kids, and Ruby Wizardry.

Websites

Blockly is a fantastic resource not only for teaching concepts in coding but also for introducing the idea of drag-and-drop programming.

The games are pretty self-explanatory, though they definitely become easier once your child understands how the blocks snap together to make a program. They're aided by the sound effect of Lego-like blocks clicking together so they know when the blocks are working together.

They are given tasks to complete, with each level getting progressively more difficult. Best of all, kids can use the button in the top right corner to check their answers and get feedback when they think they're done.

The next step over from Blockly is Tynker, another drag-and-drop site that teaches programming and allows kids to build their own projects. Tynker additionally comes with its own app for the iPad so kids can continue playing on the road.

Lastly, Scratch is the best of both worlds: programming and social media. One part project making and one part socializing with other kids over programming, this MIT-run site is brilliant. And I don't use that accolade lightly.

Kids can get started with building their own drag-and-drop programs quickly, or choose to peruse the site and play other people's projects.

In fact, playing other people's games is an important part of the process, and their code is always accessible so kids can learn through example. Equally as important, they can connect and learn from other programming kids in a somewhat controlled environment.

Any resources you'd like to add to the list for parents looking to use the summer months to tackle programming?

*I requested and received a review copy of this book from the publisher, No Starch.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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