3 ways to get kids interested in coding

June 14, 2017

Mimi Ito is our guest blog contributor with this engaging article on getting kids interested in coding.

Photography by Tim Regan, Flickr

Parents and educators have been waking up to the reality that coding is an important skill for kids to learn in today’s digital age. But most kids aren’t interested. In a Google-Gallup survey, 86% of parents wanted their kids to learn computer science, but only 25% of students said they were “very interested.” How can we bridge this gap?

At the Connected Learning Lab, we’ve been developing models for how to make STEM learning more engaging and relevant for kids. The key is understanding different motivations. Some kids are interested in coding for coding’s sake, some are motivated by friendship and play, and some are motivated by achievement and opportunity. By tapping different interests and motivations, we can find a pathway to coding for all kids.

Coding for Coding’s Sake

We’ve heard the stories of tech titans like Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg who loved computers and coding for coding’s sake. Before the recent push for coding in schools, most coders learned on their own, because of personal interest. Kids who identify with geek culture and have a personal interest in coding have lots of pathways into coding, if not in school than through online communities and apps like Scratch, Code.org, Tynker, Hopscotch, or Ready Maker. As they get older they can jump into communities like freecodecamp, try their hand at a TopCoder competition, join an open source project, or attend a bootcamp to level-up their skills.

The problem is that most kids don’t identify with geek culture, and the tech nerd stereotype can turn some kids off. I’ve written a bit about how these stereotypes are more myth than reality, but they continue to turn kids away from coding.

Coding for Friendship and Play

Most kids don’t see themselves as tech nerds, but most play games together, and all of them care about friendships. Kids who aren’t interested in coding for coding’s sake can still be motivated to code if it’s part of having fun with friends. In the early years of social media, we discovered that kids were learning html because they wanted to modify their MySpace profiles to stand out to their peers.

More recently, innovators in coding education have been building tools and programs that embed coding within game design and game play as a way of tapping similar motivations. Gaming is a big part of what kids do together for fun, so why not meet kids where they are?

The new littleBits Code Kit is a great example of tapping this strategy to get kids into coding. Kids code as part of building games, and then they get to play the games together! At Connected Camps, we use this strategy too – in camps and afterschool programs that introduce kids to coding through Minecraft, and by building games in Scratch.

Gaming isn’t the only social activity that can be tapped for coding. In an National Science Foundation funded Coding for All project, my team at UC Irvine is collaborating with the MIT Scratch team, developing activities for kids to code as part of building hip hop dance videos. In their Digital Youth Divas program, the Digital Youth Network gets girls coding through e-textiles – coding for fashion and style!

Coding for Career

The Google-Gallup study also asked students about their interest and confidence in pursuing computer science as a career. Only a quarter of students were interested in learning to code, and slightly more kids said they were likely to use computer science in their job. Bucking the stereotype, more Black and Hispanic kids saw CS in their future than White kids. Black and Hispanic parents were also much more likely than White parents to see CS as a likely part of their kids’ learning in the future.

From Google-Gallup 2016, Diversity Gaps in Computer Science

Coding is one of the fastest-growing areas of employment, and most new coding jobs are outside the tech sector in areas like finance, manufacturing, and healthcare. It’s not surprising that kids and families who see coding as a future job opportunity are more interested in pursuing learning to code. Like other technology and engineering specialties, coding can offer new pathways to opportunity and upward mobility.

Career motivations are different, but just as valid as the motivations of kids with a burning personal passion for coding. And a kid who starts coding to get a good grade in a class or for an economic edge may develop a personal passion along the way. Pathways into STEM learning are diverse. If we really want to draw all kids into coding, we need to meet kids where they are.


Mimi Ito

Mimi Ito is a learning scientist, director of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, and Co-Founder of Connected Camps, a nonprofit offering online camps and mentoring for kids.

Learn more about how parents can make the most of the digital age at her Connected Parenting blog, or sign up for the Connected Camps Newsletter.