As computers infiltrate every facet of modern life, parents may want to give their tiny tots a head start by exposing them to computer science at an early age.
Apps, toys and games designed to improve children's programming skills have flooded the market — some targeted to tots who can't even tie their own shoes. While the jury is still out on whether these toys give kids an edge later in computer science courses, they do seem to get kids excited about the power of coding, experts say.
From light-up bees to pocket-sized computers, here are some of tools experts use to teach kids the basics of programming.
Nowadays, kids can start coding before they can read. But that doesn't mean the computer is the best tool for imparting basic computer science concepts, such as sequencing, said said Alice Steinglass, the vice president of product and marketing at Code.org, a nonprofit that aims to improve exposure to coding for younger kids.
"For young kids, lot of them don't have a super long attention span," Steinglass told Live Science. "Sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time may not be the best way for them to learn."
Instead, short, interactive apps may be an easier entry into computer science.
For instance, The Foos uses simple icons with symbols, such as monsters, arrows and speech bubbles to solve adventures like chasing down a donkey thief or rescuing puppies lost in space. The free iPhone app is designed for kids ages 5 to 10, and kids can learn the basics in an hour.
Another good option for the younger set is LightBot, an iPhone or Android app that teaches kids to navigate a robot through a maze, turning on lights. The program is designed for kids ages 4 to 8. The free Android or iPhone app ScratchJr, which is designed for kids ages 5 to 7, allows kids to use simple icons to code their own interactive stories and games.
"All of those tools are really designed to teach them these basic concepts, they've been evaluated by educators and none of them are asking [parents] to spend $50," Steinglass said.
Toys for little ones
For those who want something a little more hands-on, Robot Turtles is an actual, physical board game that surreptitiously teaches kiddos the basics of programming. The game, which costs about $25, teaches kids how to use directions to navigate their turtles through a maze to a tasty jewel, and can be played by kids starting around age 4.
The BeeBot is another simple, real-world toy that can teach kids the basics of coding, said Sheena Vaidyanathan, a computer science integration specialist at the Los Altos School District. The BeeBot, which retails for about $50, uses simple left- and right-buttons on the robot, and kids have to learn how to sequence their commands to get the BeeBot from one end of the room to the other, avoiding obstacles along the way.
For parents who are really invested in their children learning coding, there's Dash & Dot, a programmable robot pack that can be used by kids ages 5 and up. However, these little bots aren't cheap: At $190, they may be best for slightly older kids, around age 8, who are already excited about programming.
Toys for elementary-school age kids
Once kids reach about third or fourth grade and are proficient readers, they can graduate to simple coding languages such as Scratch, which allows them to create their own simple animations, Vaidyanathan said. Scratch is completely free and open to use, and gets them exposed to fundamental coding concepts, such as repeating loops and if-then statements using bright, color-blocked textual commands.
Middle School apps and toys
Kids this age may also be excited by coding toolkits such as Tynker, Steinglass said. Tynker provides a number of coding courses that allow kids to create their own games, such as Goblin Quest, Ninja Runner and Glitch Manor. Games get more complicated as kids develop their skills, and each package costs about $40.
Once kids are about 10 years old, they may be able to work with coding languages on a computer. Right around that age, children develop a more sophisticated theory of mind and are able to predict what others are thinking and feeling — which also means they are able to make models of what their snippets of code will produce, said Andrew J. Ko, a researcher at the Information School at the University of Washington.
At this age, kids may hanker for a pocket-sized computer such as Raspberry pi, which is run on the open-source coding language Arduino. A complete starter kit for the latest version is $80, though older, more basic models can sell for $15 or $20. These tools can be integrated with physical parts, such as lights, motors and speakers. Middle-schoolers can use such kits to code simple, automatic bird feeders, or a light-based alarm that will flash when someone enters your room, Vaidyanthan said.
Kids at this age often love robot-programming kits such as LEGO Mindstorms, she added. However, at about $410, this is a pricy investment, so it may be suitable only if parents are sure their kids have enthusiasm for the project, she said.
By the time kids reach late middle-school or early high-school, they may be ready for learning real coding languages that are widely used, such as Python or C, Vaidyanathan said.