It’s a scene many parents have recently lived. A child stares, hypnotized, at a computer, where a cartoon cat is dancing about. Mindful of screen time limits, the parent tells them to do something educational.
“Mom,” comes the exasperated response. “I’m coding.”
Probably, says Cara Schoem, a Library Media Specialist who taught coding to rising first graders this summer. “They’re practicing getting the thing on the computer to do what it is they want it to do,” she says. “It’s making their brain work in different ways. They’re problem solving live, because they’re having to try things in a variety of ways.”
STEM—meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is more than a buzzword, particularly when students are spending most or all of their time in distance learning. While STEM may only seem to be a part of a student’s education, it actually can provide a foundation for a number of subjects.
“I like to do STEM-type stuff as much as I can, because if students are solving problems and using their hands it’s going to get them more engaged, and it’s going to increase their confidence,” says Jared Thuro, a third grade teacher at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Rockville. I think projects that meet their strengths are really helpful; they see that they’re able to do this project, so a lot of times they’re willing to put in more effort in something else that might be difficult.”
Last year, Thuro took his class through a project that hit nearly every subject in his class’s curriculum. “There was a writing project where they had to explain a possible community service project. For third graders, that can be a lot,” he says. “We found these scrap pallets that were lying around the school, so we decided to paint a mural. It was a writing project, but we found the area of the mural, so that worked in math. After painting the mural, they researched and wrote about the benefits of reusing and recycling, plus the benefits of art. Since they had done the actual project, they were much more willing to do the research and write about it.”
While many parents and teachers are bemoaning distance learning for a number of reasons, some teachers are finding that being out of the classroom has led to new discoveries.
“When students were in the classroom, we gave them everything. They got exactly what they needed, down to the right colors of markers,” says Kate Kind, owner of The Polymath Place in Deale. “Now with our virtual classes it’s ‘let’s look around your house and see what we can create. We don’t have a ramp, so what can we use to make a ramp?’ It’s really cool to see the different things kids are creating.”
“In person, I’d be standing behind them and wouldn’t necessarily be able to see their face,” says Schoem. “But on my screen I can see their faces. You can see when it clicks, and they are so proud of themselves.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that a kid should be turned loose on a coding website with no limits.
“Free exploration time is really important because it’s self-guided and they’re having fun with it,” says Thuro. “But there has to be a balance.”
Schoem recommends that parents get involved as participants, not as supervisors. She suggests that parents set up Zoom calls with their children—even one—and share their screens. That way parents can work with their children to solve problems, rather than looming behind them as the screen time police.
“If they’re doing something that is fun and age-appropriate and engaging, do it together,” she says. “But let them problem-solve, and problem-solve with them if they need the help.”
In fact, there are some surprising ways students can learn coding skills without ever touching a keyboard. “For our youngest kids, we actually play Uno a lot,” says Chrissy Rey, owner of Pongos Learning Lab in Crofton. “It teaches them that if you do this, then this happens—which is the basis of coding.”
“We’ve been creating our own board games,” says Kind. “The kids have to communicate their rules clearly. If there’s a mistake the game won’t work, so they have to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.”
The skills students learn with STEM education, particularly coding, extend far beyond the classroom. Coding teaches them to keep trying until they get it right,” Schoem says. “If they get nothing else out of coding, I want them to realize that there is going to be a solution and they should keep trying until they find it.”
Coding Resources for Kids
In addition to courses in coding, this free site also offers resources for teachers and parents, as well as the “Hour of Code,” one-hour, single-subject tutorials involving well-known characters, games, shows, and movies, including Minecraft, “Adventure Time,” and “Frozen.”
Beginners will find this a welcome site, as the coding involves dragging block texts, rather than inputting actual code. Kids can create their own stories, games, and animations and then share them with the free site’s millions of users.
Minecraft and Roblox
(ages 6 and up)
These two games have taken the school set by storm for the past few years. Multiple resources (“Coding for Kids with Minecraft” and “Roblox Coding,” both from CodaKid, come highly recommended) exist to teach kids how to deepen their playing experience by using Java and other programming languages.
(ages 8 and up)
This one-player board game teaches kids to use logic to move their avatar throughout a quest to obtain Power Crystals. The puzzles get progressively harder, so it will be a long time before your child gets bored with this one.
(ages 8 and up)
Your car is trapped in traffic. Your job? Get it out. While it can be a one-player game, players can also act as a team to puzzle out the challenges. Players place the cars according to a pattern on a card, then must slide the traffic around so their car can escape.
Perhaps the most famous of the free educational websites, the nonprofit Khan Academy offers not only science, math, and coding classes, but also courses in economics, history, and even finance. They also have full schedules to help parents who have suddenly found themselves homeschooling.
—Kristen Page Kirby
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