Screen-free and hands-on activities to teach coding for preschool and kindergarten. Play board games, make binary code jewelry, and invent secret spy codes.
*This post contains affiliate links. Please see our disclosure policy.
I keep hearing about teaching young children, even preschoolers, to code. I have to admit that this used to intimidate me. What does coding for preschool even look like?
In spite of being the daughter of a computer programmer and the sister of three more, the first time I actually sat down to do anything with coding was when I started blogging a few short years ago. It turns out that if you want to blog you need to know how to do much more than simply type on a keyboard.
However, when we talk about teaching children to code we aren’t talking about teaching them the specifics of Python, Ruby, Java, or any number of other programming languages. We are talking about laying a foundation, about training their brains to think like computer programmers.
Why Teach Preschoolers to Code?
The developers of the free ScratchJr app put it perfectly:
Coding (or computer programming) is a new type of literacy. Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding. In the past, coding was seen as too difficult for most people. But we think coding should be for everyone, just like writing.
As young children code…they learn how to create and express themselves with the computer, not just to interact with it. In the process, children learn to solve problems and design projects, and they develop sequencing skills that are foundational for later academic success. They also use math and language in a meaningful and motivating context, supporting the development of early-childhood numeracy and literacy.
A computer science education is literacy for the 21st century. Many educators and researchers argue that the basic skills of coding, such as sequencing, pattern recognition and if/then conditional logic, should be introduced alongside or even before traditional reading, writing and math.
How to Teach Coding for Preschool
There are tons of fantastic apps that teach children to code. However, for preschoolers and kindergarteners I really prefer activities that are hands-on and screen-free.
One of our favorite games that sneakily teaches the fundamentals of programming is Robot Turtles. My sister-in-law gifted us this game for Christmas and it has readily become a family favorite.
Robot Turtles is so simple. The object is to get your turtle from one corner to the center where his jewel is. Sometimes you have to navigate around obstacles or zap them with lasers. One player (usually the adult) acts as the “computer” while everyone else is a “programmer”. The programmers issue a series of commands that the computer carries out. It’s so simple that after my four-year-old played it a couple of times she was able to teach my mom how to play.
Other reasons we love playing Robot Turtles:
- Everybody wins! As long as you get your turtle to his jewel you win, no matter how long it takes to get there.
- If you mess up a command you just yell “Bug!” and you get an automatic do-over. I love that you don’t lose a turn or get penalized for making a mistake. Just like in real programming, it’s easy enough to delete the last command and try again until it works right.
- Since Robot Turtles is aimed at teaching coding for preschool and early elementary-aged children, no reading is required to play.
- Older kids can take turns being the computer. This means they get to set up the board the way they want to and be the one in charge of moving all the turtles according to the commands issued by the programmers.
We also love playing a game from Left Brain Craft Brain called If/Then. It’s similar to Simon Says and gets the kids up and moving. My kids love issuing crazy hard commands, but it makes the game ridiculously fun!
Other ideas for hands-on coding for preschool include coding your name (activity from Mama Smiles) or your birthday in jewelry (activity from Handmade Kids Art). You can also make a spy decoder (idea from Frugal Fun for Boys) to send secret messages to friends or send your kids on a scavenger hunt using secret codes (project from What Do We Do All Day?) while secretly sharpening their reading, writing, and math skills!
There are so many resources out there to teach preschoolers and kindergarteners to code! This post is being written as part of a series on Coding for Kids where you can find over a dozen creative hands-on coding activities. Be sure to check them all out by clicking the picture below.