Why Your Kids Should Learn to Code

Games and apps are helping kids learn computer skills at an early age.

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Melissa Lee knows that her kids will someday understand technology better than she does.

“It’s where the world is going,” she says. “Their education, their health care, the way they communicate with people, the way they purchase things, the way they consume information—all of it will be radically different from what I knew growing up.”

Lee—an Arlington mom of two and chief of staff for ACT The App Association—actively works to cultivate her children’s interest in technology. “My goals are the same as every mom’s—good, smart, well-rounded, kind-hearted, well-mannered kids who are interested in the world around them. I feel like technology has a role in getting them there.”

More parents want to raise tech-savvy kids, especially as the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are primed to be the great job generators of the future. The median salary for software jobs is currently close to six figures and is poised to rise, says Jonathan Godfrey, ACT’s vice president of public affairs. “Parents have begun to view coding as a desired career path for their children on par with law, medicine, and finance. But coding requires skills not commonly taught in our schools. And these particular problem-solving abilities need to be developed at an early age,” he says.

Lee’s advice: “Find great apps,” she says. “If you find great apps that are educational, your kids will be learning, and you’ll probably feel better about their screen time.”

The desire to have a central location for kid-friendly apps led Lee and a group of developers to create Moms With Apps, an online forum for parents to find age-appropriate apps for their kids. The apps often turn learning into a game, and mimic “real world” learning by offering praise and rewards, such as rounds of applause or badges for completing tasks like identifying letters or finishing a puzzle. Mistakes are encouraged, so that kids develop problem-solving skills in the process.

“That’s part of tech’s appeal,” says Jennifer Kuhn, a Capitol Hill mom who runs public affairs for AT&T in Washington. “You want to screw it up and break it again,” she says of the coding and video-game programs her son, 11-year-old Max, plays. “At the heart of tech is a desire to color outside the lines.”

Not all future tech-whizes rely on apps for their tech smarts. Juliana Bain, a 17-year-old junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, has developed such an expertise in technology that she recently gave a TED talk in La Jolla, California, about her work with concussions and head injuries in the NFL. Bain had been coding and working on technology since she was a child, and as a middleschooler designed a helmet prototype that reduced the impact of collisions. Bain’s work received such national acclaim that her invention was awarded a patent and the NFL provided her an internship to continue her research.

“I had the opportunity to use [basic coding programs] Alice and Scratch,” Bain says, but she credits her time at the after-school study program Kumon with her success winning math competitions and delving into STEM fields. “To this day, I am quick with factorials because of it.”

Summer camp is another way to engage kids. From novice techies to the more experienced, the DC area offers myriad summer camp options for coding and programming. Kuhn’s son attended coding camp at St. Albans and a Smithsonian video-game camp taught by “a super-cool young woman,” Kuhn says. “The kids loved her; they were blown away. And it was great seeing a girl teach a lot of young boys how to build video games.”

But even kids who enjoy coding and computer programming should have restrictions on choosing apps and limitations on screen time. “The key is finding the right balance,” says Lynn Wetherell, a Takoma Park native who does coding and computer programming for Wetherell’s 13-year-old son Eric has gone from looking over her shoulder while she worked to coding and programming on his own. “It helps to clearly indicate ahead of time how long before he has to shut it off.”

It’s wise to get to know your children’s devices and how to set restrictions and passcodes. Kuhn’s son cannot purchase an app without her permission — even a free one. She doesn’t allow any in-app communication, such as message boards, unless there is restricted membership. In Lee’s family, the kids’ devices don’t have access to Netflix, YouTube, or any other video app, lest a few wrong swipes lead to an accidental glimpse of Game of Thrones. Kids may be grasping the tech world quickly, but there are still some things you don’t want your fast-growing techie to see just yet.