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How to Find the Best Coding Programs for Kids

Whether as part of an existing classroom curriculum or as an extracurricular assignment during school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents are increasingly turning to online coding programs for their kids.

And while many people are looking to learn the latest computer languages, recent news of the shortage of coders who can use the vintage COBOL program, which is causing delays in the processing of nationwide unemployment claims, shows that good programming skills never go to waste.

From the introductory one-off coding class to the more advanced programming languages, here's where to find the best coding programs for kids.

Understanding the Basics

"Coding is the thing that makes our smart cars work, and our smart homes, and everything that makes what people love , and don't think about what makes them work," says Trina Coleman, CEO and president of Coleman Comprehensive Solutions, creator of the STEM Skills online course platform and the second of five African American women in U.S. history to obtain a Ph.D. in theoretical high energy/nuclear physics. "Coding is essential for making technology move forward."

Coleman's STEM Skills platform, which is aimed at students in grades four to 12 as well as college students and adult learners, offers courses in math and physics as well as a weeklong online STEM boot camp. STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Costs for these courses range from free to $29.99.

[Read: 5 Things to Know About Online Coding Boot Camps.]

Coleman also recommends Scratch, a free program by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed to teach coding to kids ages 8-16, although it is used by people of all ages, and ScratchJr, a free program designed to teach younger kids ages 5-7 how to build their own interactive stories and games.

"ScratchJr is a drag-and-drop system. It takes a whole lot of the work out of learning to code," Coleman says. "It's just like a calculator. You don't have to do arithmetic anymore if you don't want to because of the invention of the calculator, and now all the calculator apps."

Coleman warns parents, however, that coding skills are something that should only be learned after, or in conjunction with, learning how to think analytically.

"The coding should not precede the well-rounded skill of analytical thinking," Coleman says. "You have to understand the problem you're trying to solve before you can do pure coding."

Speaking the Right Language

"I often find that what it takes to get someone ready for what it is to be in a programming or a coding world is understanding it's a language like any other," says Kirk Werner, vice president of content for Udacity. The online course provider has reported a 44.8% increase in weekly active users from March 9 to April 6, during which it also saw a 73.3% increase in new enrollments.

The most popular topics are in the programming languages Kotlin and Python, HTML, CSS, and Android and iOS app development.

[Read: Taking a MOOC During Coronavirus Pandemic: What to Know.]

"You have to learn the syntax of that language and practice it," Werner says. He recommends students start with a basic programming language course, an Android basics class, mobile development or even just start building a website.

While Udacity's courses aren't for very young kids, the platform has seen an uptick in enrollments for middle school students and older, Werner says.

"Our courses work well in blended classroom environments," he says. "More and more students are sitting at their parents' computers, just going through the intro classes. It's giving them something engaging to do."

Udacity offers a range of free and paid courses. The nonprofit organization freeCodeCamp also offers a wide range of online coding tutorials on YouTube at no cost for older students.

Making It Fun

Students stuck at home have enough to worry about without their parents forcing them to learn something not on their school's curriculum. Nevada Winrow, founder, president and CEO of Black Girls Dive Foundation Inc., which teaches STEM skills though aquatic-based activities, says that just sitting children in front of the computer and telling them to learn to code probably isn't going to yield the best results.

"If your parents tell you learning to do this will make you smart, what 9-year-old is going to care about that?" Winrow laughs. "Turn it into a game. Don't force it or present it like a science or something techy. Just present it as something fun."

Winrow recommends Raspberry Pi, a low-cost computing platform and a product of the United Kingdom-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, which aims to make computing accessible around the world.

"Raspberry Pi is a great open source code for kids," Winrow says. "You can buy a lot of the tools very inexpensively online. It comes with a little box that's a mini-computer, and kids can learn how to code, and build their own mini-computers."

She also recommends Wonder Workshop, with which Black Girls Dive has partnered in the past and which provides its Learn to Code curriculum for kindergarten to fifth-grade teachers and students and an applied robotics curriculum for grades six to eight for purchase. The site also offers free apps and other free learning activities, which like the curricula are designed for those without any coding experience.

"These resources can be really helpful for parents as well as their kids. Parents aren't teachers, so they're just direct," Winrow says. "Where teachers are just very savvy at how to make something that might otherwise be just boring as heck really fun."

[Read: Where to Find Free Online Tutoring During the Coronavirus Crisis.]

Learning Together

Parents fatigued by being thrust into the role of teachers might find some reprieve in taking on another role -- that of students.

"Students have been away from their classmates for over a month now," Werner says. "Many of them are missing that shared learning environment. Parents can really help their kids learn by taking an online coding class, or building a website, or learning a programming language, together."

"There's nothing better for students to reinforce the school aspect of learning together, having classmates and seeing that learning isn't just something you do in school, but throughout your life," he adds. "Show your children that it's OK to not know everything."

And if parents don't have coding experience either, there's no harm in enrolling in the same class as their child, whether they're in kindergarten or high school.

Before enrolling students into any coding course, however, first ask if it's something they actually want to do. No matter how fun the games or websites, or how old the student, kids won't learn if they're not interested.

"We're trying to push kids and students into STEM activities. If we're short on musicians, should we hand everyone a saxophone? No," Coleman says. "Finding out what their interests are is important. Make sure they want to do coding, not just because coding is something someone said they should learn how to do."

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