When parents watch their teenage children breeze along with the latest apps on their tablet or their phone, they often assume that their child is developing a skill with technology that will serve them well in their future.
The truth of the matter is that while most teens these days have no trouble picking up and figuring out how to use the latest devices, few spend the time learning how they work and remain passive consumers of technology.
As society becomes more technologically integrated, it is up to us as parents to ensure that our children grow up with the skills they need to meet the challenges of tomorrow head-on.
Helping your child learn to code is arguably the best way of doing so, as it gives them the tools they need to master the technology that surrounds them, and improving your teen’s coding skills can actually be easier than you might think.
Why is coding so important for teenage students to learn?
We’ve all heard it about a thousand times by now – coding is the future.
But beyond dreams of creating the next wildly successful app or game, learning coding can be very beneficial to teenage students in a number of ways.
Coding can help teens make sense of and take control in a technological world
Nearly every aspect of our lives interacts with software and code, from the devices we use to stream our favorite tv shows to the smart doorbell that guards our front doors.
By teaching coding to teenage students, we give them the power to more completely understand what these devices are doing, as well as the power and ability to alter and modify them to suit their needs and better solve their problems.
Coding skills will be critical for success in future careers
Regardless of what career path your student takes in life, chances are they will have to interact with software and technology in a far more involved manner than we do today.
Smart devices and sophisticated algorithms are deeply embedded in most companies and organizations. Most companies out there already expect a certain level of comfort with technology and the fastest growing, best paying careers often expect some level of coding skill.
Whether it’s being able to create a custom spreadsheet, maintain a website, derive meaningful insights from a company database or figuring out how to make a process better, those who have a more fluid ability to command technology will be in a better position to become future leaders.
Coding sharpens a broad array of cognitive skills
Learning to code isn’t just about inputting lines of code.
It can also help teenagers develop important cognitive skills that can help them in school and in life.
Coding teaches students how to approach problems sequentially and logically, organizing and prioritizing events and tasks so that they can be tackled more effectively and more efficiently, whether its in other subjects at school, at work or in their day to day life.
It also teaches teens the importance of attention to detail. Since small errors in code can add up to a big headache, coding and debugging can give teenagers the practice they need at maintaining focus and working out and perfecting the details of a project before moving on.
Coding is also a great way to hone problem solving skills. A large part of coding involves identifying important problems, brainstorming possible (and often creative) solutions and then implementing the most effective answer by tweaking or even creating whole new programs.
Sharp problem solving skills are critical in pretty much any STEM subject that a student might later pursue, and can be generally pretty helpful in tackling everyday projects.
Coding looks great on a college application
Much like the workforce, colleges are increasingly looking for applicants who have demonstrated some coding ability.
Coding experience can be an excellent way of demonstrating discipline, organization and perseverance, as well as showing college boards that a student has the foresight and will to develop relevant and practical skills for their learning and the job market.
How is teaching coding to teens different from teaching coding to younger kids?
These days there is a huge push to get kids to learn to code as young as possible, and there are any number of articles written about why and how parents can help teach their pre-teens to code.
But when it comes to coding for teens, things can get a little more tricky.
Standing at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood, teenagers live very different lives and have very different concerns than their younger counterparts.
Parents and teachers need to take these differences into account if they want to help their teenage students learn coding.
Factors that can make it easier to teach teens to code
Stronger Outside (Extrinsic) Motivators
Teenagers are a little older, a little wiser and a little more worldly than younger kids.
They tend to have something of a general sense of how the world and what is expected of them, and can often better understand the benefits that being stronger in coding can provide.
They may, for example, be aware that they need to learn some coding to be an engineer or an app or game developer.
They may also understand that learning to code can be an excellent step to a lucrative career, and older teenage students may already be interested in anything that can give them an edge in their application to college.
These practical, outside motivations can often make it easier to get teens enthusiastic about learning to code.
Greater Internal (Intrinsic) Motivation to code
Over the years, teenage students have had greater opportunities to be exposed to interests or hobbies that involve code, such as video games, science camps, gadgets, robotics or certain apps.
Now able to better grasp the interplay between software and their interests, teenage students may have developed a personal desire to code or at least an interest in deepening their connection to and control over these hobbies through code.
Greater capacity for abstract thought and memory retention
One problem that kids often have with coding is that kids under the age of about 12 often have a hard time fully grasping abstract ideas and concepts.
Many concepts in coding and computer science are quite abstract in nature and as a result, coding courses for kids often have to spend a good deal of time trying to explain ideas in ways that kids can understand and can be limited in the type of material they can reasonably present.
As their brains are more developed, teens can usually tackle computer science concepts more easily, allowing them to progress through courses quicker and in more depth and allowing them to explore more complex ideas.
Can grasp the application of code more easily
As teenagers grow out of childhood they often begin to slowly see the world less about themselves and begin to consider the wider world around them.
When younger kids think about code, they often see it in a more limited, self-serving manner – a way to make a video game, a way to get a robot to do something cool for them, and so on.
In contrast, as teens gain more experience interacting with society, they become more acutely aware of its issues and problems.
With a little help they can begin to see how coding can be used to solve broader, everyday problems, a more realistic view that can motivate them to tackle more complex coding projects and deepen learning in the long run.
Stronger academic background and better developed skills
Beyond the basics, computer science and coding do require some more sophisticated logic and math skills than most younger kids have.
Teenagers, on the other hand, may be more solid in math and mathematical thinking, having been more solidly introduced to geometry, graphing, statistics algebra and even pre-calculus, which can help in understanding things like variables, Boolean logic, algorithms, data structures and so on.
This can allow them to create more sophisticated programs and help them understand certain coding concepts more easily.
Unique challenges that teens face
Despite being older and more mature, teens learning coding do have some challenges that younger kids do not.
Packed with middle and high school level courses, homework, sports, part time jobs, hobbies and a far more complex social life, teens tend not to have quite as much free time to devote to learning to code as younger students.
As a result, it can be a little tricky to integrate long and involved programming courses into their day to day schedule.
Preconceived notions of their own abilities
Unfortunately, by their teenage years many students will have had negative academic experiences that can (usually unjustly) shape their ideas about themselves and their own abilities and skills.
It’s not uncommon, for example, to hear teens say that they’re “bad at math” or that STEM just “isn’t for them.”
When approaching coding for the first time, teens may feel frustrated or embarrassed by having to start from zero, ultimately deciding that they’re just not “made” for coding.
Getting teens to accept that they can successfully learn to code and create a cool app or a video game can be an unexpected hurdle for some parents.
Greater desire for independence and choice in their own education
Parents encouraging their teens to learn coding may run into the age-old problem of adolescence – teenagers often don’t like being told what to do.
As they develop a greater sense of independence and self, teens may want to choose for themselves what they would like to study, and coding may not be at the top of their list.
As a consequence, parents suggesting coding as an extracurricular learning activity can find themselves facing unexpected, but natural, resistance from their child.
Tips for teaching teens coding
Remind them that it’s never too late
If you have a teenage student who is just starting to think about learning to code, they may be frustrated, embarrassed or otherwise hesitant at having to start from the absolute basics, feeling they “missed the boat” by not learning coding earlier.
It’s worth pointing out that while it’s true that kids are learning the basic principles of coding earlier than ever, people of all ages can learn programming.
In fact, it may help to mention that their greater maturity, deeper focus, stronger memory, better understanding of math and greater overall experience in life can actually be significant advantages in the long run when it comes to coding.
Set aspirational goals
When it comes to coding for kids, generally speaking parents and teachers want to keep things relatively simple and high-interest.
Teens, on the other, often have higher expectations of themselves and of what technology can actually do. They also often tend to have a developing sense of the world and increasingly strong opinions and ideas on how to fix its problems.
By setting more complex goals and coding projects, parents and teachers can harness the developing awareness and ambition of their teenage students, stoking the fires of their creativity and getting them motivated to code.
Take their interests into consideration
As teens develop into their own person, they also tend to cultivate a variety of hobbies and interests of their own, such as music, art, video gaming and sports.
Rather than working against them, parents should recognize these as the powerful potential motivators they are and use them to help teenage students get interested in seeing what coding can personally do for them by integrating these interests into coding projects.
Teens who like to play video games may be interested in trying their hand at building their own in Roblox, for example, while those into sports can build their very own practical app they can then use to improve their performance.
Even those who really just enjoy socializing and interacting online can find something that interests them with coding, from creating their own social media apps to building out and styling their own website or blog.
Don’t push too hard
At the end of the day, your teenage student is still a teenager and need their independence and their own identity and will naturally rebel if they feel pushed into learning something.
Although coding is an increasingly critical skill, a heavy handed approach can all but ensure that the student will pursue pretty much anything but programming.
Instead, parents should try and create a positive, low-pressure environment and, if possible, help their student come to see coding as something interesting and useful on their own. Some ways to do this might be:
- Casually discussing news items or books and movies about successful or interesting coders or projects
- Making sure their schedule isn’t too busy or overwhelming to add a new extracurricular
- Finding coding courses that more align with their casual hobbies and interests, such as video game development
- Ensure that learning to code is as much not like school as possible, with no grade expectations and more casual instruction
- Letting them try coding on their own with no pressure or expectations to continue attached
- Gifting them devices that are intrinsically interesting but require coding, such as a coding robot or drone, and letting them explore them on their own
- Exploring more social, away from home coding options, such as local coding camps, real life classes or centers
What are the most useful coding languages for teens to start learning?
Scratch is a free visual programming language that uses blocks of code, rather than text, to create programs.
Instead of having to worry about typing in the correct words to make something happen (syntax), users instead pull these blocks of code around and chain them together to make something happen.
Although seemingly simple, Scratch is an excellent way to introduce the fundamentals of coding and coding concepts and has been used to make some interesting and complex programs, such as video games and even mobile apps.
A less finicky and often easier alternative to text-based coding, Scratch can be a great starting point for younger teens and those with no experience in coding whatsoever who feel a little intimidated.
Python is a text-based coding language that is growing in popularity by the day.
Powering popular sites like Facebook, Reddit and YouTube, Python is usually the language of choice for those who want to handle data and data processing, including data scientists, streaming video providers, accountants, financial quants, scientists and more.
Perhaps most interestingly, it is also a top choice for those working in cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence – three of the most cutting edge and high-demand areas in computer science.
Other than its ability to handle data, Python is also known for being more beginner-friendly than most other high level languages.
It uses fairly simple syntax that often seems like simple English, it is pretty flexible and it is fairly forgiving as a language, letting users get up and running with their first programs quickly.
It also has extensive support and libraries available that allow users to get very creative and very complex with their coding.
Some recommended coding classes and resources for teenage students
CodeWizardsHQ is a pretty popular coding program aimed at students 8-18.
It offers a fairly comprehensive series of courses specifically for middle and high schoolers that take students from the very basics of coding to fairly advanced concepts and topics, such as databases and web app development.
These courses are taught in small groups by experienced coders and are largely project based, meaning that teens put their learning to good use and get to see the impact of what they are learning as they spend time actually coding and creating various programs.
While the fundamentals are taught pretty early on, CodeWizardsHQ does a good job at introducing teens to some of the more interesting, useful and in-demand concepts in computer science today, such as natural language processing, machine learning and database development.
Perhaps most interestingly, upon completion of the high school program, teens have an opportunity to intern with and work on a software project at a non-profit organization, direct and relevant coding experience that can look great on their resume or on college applications.
Tynker is a coding program for kids and teens 7+ that offers instruction in a broad array of programming languages and a wide variety of projects to explore and work on.
A self-paced and self-directed program, students learn to code through a combination of recorded videos, coding activities and quizzes/skill assessments that, when properly followed, offer a fairly comprehensive coding education overall.
More than that, Tyker gives students a variety of high-interest activities and projects that let students apply their skills to real life tech.
Students can use the coding they’ve learned to create their own video games, program drones and even create wearable devices.
They can even create their own projects from scratch and share them with the wider Tynker community or participate in global codeathons and 30 days of code challenges.
If you’re looking for a coding course that can also align with your students’ particular interests or hobbies, Codakid is probably your best bet.
Each course is project-based and themed around various fun interests that students might be interested in, such as coding for Minecraft and Roblox, video game design and even arduino drone programming.
Despite courses being based on high-interest topics and interests, the learning in Codakid is solid.
Regardless of the course, students get a fairly firm understanding of coding fundamentals, such as conditionals, variables, loops and events, and have the opportunity to work with more specific, sophisticated topics such as game engines, global scripts, collision detection, client/server interaction, and even machine learning.
Each course is taught with a variety of high-energy tutorial videos and coding activities, taking students from the very basics to more sophisticated topics in an easy to understand way, and containing a variety of practice activities and periodic quizzes that reinforce learning fairly well.
If your teen is also a fan of RPG and fantasy adventure video games, they may enjoy CodeCombat.
Students learn coding concepts and techniques as they explore the environment, controlling their character, clearing obstacles and defeating enemies by inputting code, creating scripts and even programming their own custom items.
As they progress through the game, students become familiar with inputting syntax and using the logic of coding.
They also get exposed to specific and fundamental concepts in computer science such as string comparison, variables and relational operators, making a fairly comprehensive learning experience despite the game-like mechanics..
Once they’ve developed a bit of skill, students can also enter a global competitive league where they can test their coding skills by joining a team and battling other players with fireballs, spells, swords and more.
The combination of learning and game play is somewhat unique in the educational space for coding and can make CodeCombat an interesting option for students who aren’t interested in or are intimidated by more formal coding courses.
Khan Academy is a well-known and free resource for online learning and offers a variety of self-study courses in computer programming for students.
Although Khan Academy doesn’t always teach as many coding languages as other programs,and the projects and challenges aren’t always as sophisticated and can be rather simple at times, the courses are typically well taught, thorough and, perhaps most importantly, free.
It can therefore serve as a good and accessible introduction to the world of coding.
Further Reading and Resources
Articles on coding from the Smarter Learning Guide:
- Getting Kids Interested In Coding Through Video Game Design
- How To Keep Kids Interested In Coding
- Hands On Coding For Kids
- Best Python Coding Classes for Kids
- Best Coding Classes for Kids
Other resources to check out when it comes to coding for teenage students:
- Scratch – try out coding with arguably the most famous block coding program and some of the projects that people have created
- Outschool – check out outschool to find formal small group classes on coding and computer science
- Code.org – a free and popular resource for all things coding that contains a variety of tutorials and helpful tools to check out
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.