It’s no secret that today’s society is technology-driven.
Increasingly, parents are concerned that their kids are merely becoming passive consumers of apps and gadgets, with traditional schooling failing to give them the tools necessary to help them master the technology that surrounds them and be better prepared to become leaders of tomorrow’s world.
In response, a number of effective programs have been developed to help kids learn to code, giving kids a fun and engaging head start in the world of STEM.
Yet some students can struggle sitting, learning and coding in front of a keyboard and screen, even if they are really interested in coding.
Some kids learn best when they can physically engage their learning material, with a hands-on approach giving them a firmer grasp of abstract materials than just visual or audio learning alone.
Parents of these students may worry that their kids will fall behind their peers when it comes to learning coding.
Luckily, learning to code is no longer limited to just working with a keyboard and mouse.
In fact, there are many ways in which kids can use physical objects and devices while they learn the fundamentals of computer science and start coding, which we’ll discuss in this article.
What is Hands-on Learning
At its simplest, hands-on learning means learning by doing.
Also known as experiential learning, it is a type of learning where kids can learn by actively and physically being engaged in activities, rather than passively listening, reading or seeing the material in question.
Benefits of Hands-on Coding
Make Learning to Code Multisensory
Adding hands-on coding activities to a more traditional kids learn to code program can get kids more physically engaged, engaging their tactile senses.
Research has shown that as kids are more engaged with their bodies and minds, hands-on learning can help deepen their understanding of material and aid in information retention, engaging more cognitive skills and activating sensory and motor-related parts of the brain, which may result in better performance down the line.
Reduced Screen Time
Hands-on coding activities can also be a boon to parents who are concerned about the sheer amount of screen time their kids are receiving.
With kids 8 and up spending well over 4 hours a day watching or using screens, hands-on coding activities can let kids practice the fundamentals of coding and computer science without necessarily being glued to a screen or computer the whole time.
Fine physical skill development
Aside from the obvious benefits when it comes to preparing kids for the future, learning to code is a great way for kids to develop stronger logical thinking, visual processing and problem solving skills, teaching them to think in a more systematic, structured way, which is ideal as they begin their STEM learning journey.
By including hands-on projects and activities to learning to code, kids also develop more fine sensorimotor and visual-motor skills (hand eye coordination), as well, something lacking in a purely digital teaching method.
Deeper Appreciation of Coding and its Uses
As they go about coding in a hands-on way, kids are given physical evidence of what they are learning and how their actions have certain effects, as well as how it can related to other STEM subjects, in a much more concrete and less abstract way.
Learning about if-then-else conditionals by programming a DIY robot to navigate a hand-built maze, for example, can give some kids a more robust understanding of the concept as it relates to a real life example and even show them how their particular code affects its navigation and the use of its sensors in real time.
Can kids really learn to code in a hands-on way?
While obviously we recommend hands-on activities as part of a more formal, in depth coding course for kids, from robot and engineering projects to blended digital-physical learning systems, companies have produced a variety of products for kids that can teach important, critical concepts in computer programming in a much more physical way.
While each works in different ways to accomplish the same goal, the general idea is to combine hands-on activities with a method of learning the basics of coding.
Now, the exact method of coding can vary greatly between products.
It may involve, as in the instance of an arduino kit, full-on written programming in an advanced programming language like C.
It may also, like most kids coding kits, involve block coding, where code is dragged and dropped into place as “blocks,” letting kids learn much of the sequential thinking, core concepts and logic of programming without having to input a single line of code themselves or worry about precise syntax.
There are even options that don’t even involve a screen altogether, with kids using representative physical objects (like printed cards) to re-create things like variables, algorithms and conditionals in a way even very young kids can understand and without even picking up a tablet or phone.
The core concepts of coding (and the principles of computer science) can be quite flexible in the way they are approached, and parents concerned about the amount of time their kids sit in front of a screen should not let that deter them from helping their kids exploring the world of computer programming.
But wait, isn’t inputting code, by its nature, hands-on?
Even though kids learn to code programs can be quite excellent for teaching coding skills, they usually teach kids through a combination of visual and auditory instruction, which doesn’t really provide much in the way of physical interaction beyond keystrokes and mouse movements.
Further, with most of the results of their code represented in app or game form, i.e. affecting digital sprites or the way an app works, it can be hard for some kids to translate abstract ideas into concrete understanding with traditional coding courses and methods.
By integrating physical devices, manipulatives and other hands-on activities, coding can be brought into the real world, so to speak, and help more experiential learners connect to coding more deeply, particularly when it comes to younger kids who often build their skills through physical play.
Hands on Coding Options for Kids: Our Picks
If hands-on coding seems like something you’d like to try out with your kids, below we’ve listed some of the options out there that we think are great value for your money.
Each of them integrate accessible coding instruction with fun, useful and pretty cool physical devices to offer, in our opinion, high quality hands-on coding experiences for kids.
Piper Computer Kit
With the help of Minecraft, kids build their very own portable computer and learn to code with some cool electronics projects
The Piper Computer Kit provides kids with everything they need to physically build their own Raspberry Pi-powered portable computer and start learning to code.
Easy to use and requiring little parental oversight, kids are guided through the computer assembly and learn about the electronic components in a game-like Minecraft environment, connecting wires, switches and sensors and assembling various devices in order to complete the game’s missions.
Once they’ve put their Piper kit together, kids can access Pipercode, a Scratch-like block coding program that takes a very hands-on approach to teaching coding.
Pipercode blends coding and electronics together, letting kids physically assemble various circuits and projects and then code them with block code to do specific, and sometimes pretty cool, things.
With clear on-screen step by step instructions, Pipercode takes kids through learning coding concepts (lists, variables, conditionals, states, events and more) with tons of real life electronics projects and activities.
Because Pipercode’s coding lessons directly interact with electronic components, kids get a deeper, hands-on experience in electronics, letting them watch their code come to life and affect a physical system, something that can easily translate to robotics and engineering later.
If kids want to take their coding to the next level Piper kits also come with Python and Java coding environments, meaning once kids have mastered block coding, they can move onto written coding projects and, with a little work, can add C++ and arduino, as well.
All this lets Piper computer kits grow with kids and their interest in hands-on STEM learning.
Osmo Explorer Starter Kit
Blending physical objects and digital apps, kids learn to code (as well as some math, spelling and even drawing) with this augmented-reality device and its cool manipulatives
Osmo kits are learning kits that blend hands-on play with digital games to create a unique augmented reality-based interactive learning experience for kids ages 3-11.
Put simply, Osmo kits use your tablet’s front camera to detect a variety of custom physical objects (called manipulatives) and bring them to life on screen through digital games and activities. As kids play with the manipulatives their actions are played out digitally on screen.
The Osmo Explorer kit provides a variety of manipulatives and apps to teach coding (as well as other subjects – such as spelling, math, basic physics and drawing) – to young kids.
In fact, it takes the meaning of block coding to a whole other, hands-on level.
With block coding apps, like Scratch, kids use “blocks” or little digital shapes that represent various code functions. Instead of having to remember proper syntax or having to type things out properly, kids link these blocks together to make things happen.
Osmo takes this one stop further and has created physical manipulatives of these code blocks. In other words, the Explorer kit contains real-life plastic blocks of code that kids can manipulate with their hands, slotting them together magnetically to create code on-screen.
To help reach young kids and teach them basic coding concepts, Osmo uses a variety of game and game challenges to guide kids through the use of basic code functions.
Slotting together their manipulatives into different code combinations, kids learn to guide characters through digital worlds, creating code sequences to help them accomplish different tasks and goals along the way.
While Osmo’s various coding challenges and games start off easy enough and very videogame-like, they do ramp up in complexity and eventually touch on important concepts like sequencing, conditionals and looping, and can be a great first hands-on coding set for younger learners.
Snap Circuits Explore Coding
Snap Circuits make learning the basics of coding and circuitry a…snap…with modular, snap together, functional electronics components and an intuitive block coding app
If you’ve ever thought that building electronics and circuits should be as easy for kids as Lego, you’re in luck.
With Snap Circuits, kids can easily create their own real life, working circuit boards by literally snapping components together. In doing so learn the fundamentals of electronics, and with the Explore Coding kit they can learn the fundamentals of coding as well.
The Explore Coding kit contains everything kids need to build their own circuit boards and try out a variety of electronics and engineering projects. Much like lego, kids can follow certain designs or, if they have some experience already, try their hand at building their own inventions.
Where it differs from other Snap Circuit kits is that it includes a Bluetooth powered coding module, which connects to a special app, allowing kids’ creations to program and control their circuits’ lights, sounds, motor and more using either in-built coding functions or Blockly, a block coding language.
What’s really cool is that most Snap Circuit kits are modular, which means the components included in one kit can be used with pretty much every other Snap Circuits kit, or with various Snap Circuits components that are available at electronics stores and online.
This gives kids the ability to almost endlessly expand their kits, increasing the complexity of their projects and letting Snap Circuits grow with their capabilities.
They even have an Arduino set that allows kids to take their engineering and coding to the next level.
Dash and Dot- screen free fun
Price: From $150
Looking like they came straight out of a Pixar movie, Dash and Dot are a pair of programmable robots that teach kids robotics and coding in a playful and easy to understand way.
While quite adorable, these robots come out of the box as a blank slate. While they can be controlled manually, these robots are filled with cool sensors, lights and other gadgets that kids can take advantage of by coding the robots to navigate obstacles, accomplish various tasks, interact with the environment and generally do their bidding.
Dash and Dot robots come with a variety of apps that help kids learn to code, including a story-based gamified learn to code program (Wonder) that takes them from the absolute basics to comfortably coding their new robot friends. Afterwards, kids can use Blockly and even Apple’s Swift to create their own programs that Dash can follow.
There are also a variety of physical accessories that can be purchased to expand the capabilities of Dash and Dot, as well as the hands-on learning possibilities. For example, there are brick attachments (for connecting Lego sets), catapult arms, drawing kits, a Xylophone set and more.
While Dash (and Dot) aren’t robots that you can build yourself, something that reduces their hands-on nature somewhat, they more than make up for it with durable build quality.
These are robots that, while you certainly don’t want to smash them against the wall, will certainly stand up to most kid-related accidents without a problem and give them a programmable robot experience worth remembering.
To keep kids prepared for an ever changing world, parents must encourage their kids to learn the tools they’ll need to control the technology that surrounds us.
Learning to code, however, doesn’t necessarily have to involve your kids spending endless hours sitting in front of a screen and keyboard punching in strings of code.
Whether through coding cards, physical manipulatives or their very own programmable robots, there are a number of options out there today that let kids take a more hands-on approach to learning to code, deepening their learning by letting them engage their physical senses while they sharpen their minds.
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.