During the mid-term break last week, a few friends were in touch seeking some advice on coding activities to keep their children occupied while they were no longer home-schooling but still hanging around the house. I’ve sent out versions of this via WhatsApp to people, so I figured it might be a good idea to get this down on virtual paper so someone else might stumble across it and find it useful. Regardless of mid-term or home schooling, some of this might be useful for kids starting out with some computer programming.

Normally, I’d recommend checking out your local Coder Dojo, but that’s probably not an option at the moment. All of the resources I’ll recommend here are free and readily available. All you’ll need is an internet connection and a computer or new-ish tablet to work from.

First things first, if you child has no interest in computers or coding, you can’t force them. Let them do something else instead – they won’t experience any sort of intellectual disadvantage. Instead, encourage them to read a book or run around the garden – whatever floats their boat. They’ll be happier and you’ll be happier too.

Assuming your child is enthusiastic, but a complete beginner, I recommend starting off with an Hour of Code activity. These are incredibly accessible and most run directly inside your web browser (e.g. Chrome, Safari). The major benefit of this is you don’t need to install or configure any specialist software. Just point your browser of choice to hourofcode.com/ie and try one of the activities. Depending on the age of your child, they might need your help getting started. Most activities come with videos that guide the learner along the path and help them to solve the challenges. In June 2020, I recorded a couple introductory videos along these lines for Cruinniu na nOg festival. These are still available on their YouTube channel is you need some extra help. [As an aside, I look at these now an interesting time-stamp in how far I’ve come in terms of producing teaching videos from home. The lighting! The background! The hair! The horror!]

Most of the Hour of Code activities adopt a blocks-based approach, which is a visual way of learning programming. This method was popularised by Scratch, which is the introductory tool used in Coder Dojos. Many of the Hour of Code activities use licenced characters (for example R2D2 or Minecraft Alex & Steve) and they feel more like a game than schoolwork. Based on my experience, I’d recommend trying out any of the MineCraft exercises, the Dance Party activity or the Star-Wars themed lesson. Each session is designed so it can be completed within an hour, but kids usually get through them in 30 mins or so.

A hardcore coder might dismiss the Hour of Code activities as flimsy, but they’d be wrong. These activities introduce some serious programming concepts, such as variables, conditional branching (if statements), loops and functions. Many exercises also contain worthwhile secondary lessons. For example, the Frozen activity involves programming Anna and Elsa to draw shapes into the ice, which is a great way to help a young person learn about geometry and angles.

Assuming these activities haven’t scared them off and they’d like to try something else, I find that game format tend to keep their attention. My eldest daughter Sophie (11) has been playing around with Microsoft’s MakeCode Arcade and it seems to be a hit! It’s a very accessible game development environment with lots of funky pixel-art graphics and charming chiptune sounds. Think of a GameBoy Color aesthetic and you’re halfway there.

As before, MakeCode is browser based, so getting started is a doddle. The MakeCode Hour of Code activity is probably worth completing first, to get the learner used to the environment. There’s also simple creation exercises based around a Wonder Woman maze game and a simple NFL Football game. They’re all further down the Hour of Code page linked above. After that, they can move onto the larger MakeCode Arcade ecosystem and any of the longer multi-stage projects that are also laid out. They’re riffs on games you might recognise, such as “Falling Duck” (Flappy Bird) or “Jumpy Platformer” (Mario).

There are skill map activities which build up a game in stages, introducing new concepts with each iteration, such as AI. There’s also some design elements for kids to get their teeth into, such as drawing their own custom pixel-art characters. For interested parents/educations, the website also provides information about the learning models and solutions to problems.

Here’s another suggestion. It’s a bit of a weird one, but my kids have quite enjoyed Mario Teaches Typing. It’s not coding but I would consider typing a “key” computer skill. Mario Teaches Typing is a 90s licensed MS-DOS game that people at gamesnostalgia.com have rejigged it to run inside an emulator for Windows and Mac.

I’m not entirely sure what the legality is surrounding this, but I’m going to assume this is abandonware that someone has rescued. The reason I mention this is that I’ve noticed a lot of 1st years in 3rd level who don’t know their way around a QWERTY keyboard. Despite the huge strides computing has made with interfaces (touchscreens, voice commands, etc), it’s still worth being proficient on a keyboard. Being a Mario game, this is also great fun.

Finally, if your young person has exhausted all of those, they could try out one of the Learning Pathways for Scratch. If our Coder Dojo were running, I expect we’d be following these with some of the Ninjas. As well as learning some computer skills, there also seems to be valuable secondary lessons in these about Looking After Yourself and Protecting The Planet. Obviously, this rabbit hole goes much deeper, but let’s save the conversation about robots for another day.

If you’d like to hear a conversation on this topic, a couple of years ago I recorded a podcast with some colleagues in Waterford Institute of Technology. It’s good chat (if I do say so myself) and the others really know their stuff.

Hopefully, this might help keep your children busy on a rainy day. Naturally, if the the weather is nice, I’d recommend ditching the computer screens and encourage the kids the run around outside. They have their whole lives to learn about computers, but a fine day in Ireland is a rare thing so take full advantage when you can!

Rob O’Connor is a computing lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology and also a mentor at Coder Dojo Dunmore East in Waterford, Ireland (up until the COVID pandemic anyway).