Coding for kids

When to introduce your child to coding games and intellectually stimulating activities

There is no denying that we live in a technology-filled world. From a young age, children are being exposed to technology and often become more proficient than adults by the time they reach kindergarten. But before you rush off to buy the latest coding game or activity aimed at developing executive functioning, it’s worth taking pause to consider what’s appropriate in terms of child development and what could potentially hinder the intellectual growth of your child.

Children develop sequentially; they must gain maturity over one set of skills before they can move to the next phase of development. In infancy, children are dependent on others to have their needs met. As they grow and gain maturity, around ages 18 months to 2 years, they gain the ability to control their own physical bodies and use motor development to learn so that they get some of their own needs met. After children have mastered control of their physical body, they then progress to social and emotional regulation around pre-school age (3-4yrs). The focus for pre-school age children is on social regulation: learning how to take turns or how to share, and controlling their impulses. Once children have mastered the skills required for social and emotional regulation – then and only then – can they begin to gain maturity in terms of academic achievement.

18 months

Recent research confirms that children under the age of 18 months are exclusively using the most basic, primitive part of their brain: the amygdala. The primary job of the child’s amygdala is to assess safety. This means that a child’s brain is constantly scanning the environment for any threats to the safety of the organism, and is on defense and ready to withdraw if a threat is sensed. When children are operating from this part of the brain, the best way to help them develop optimally is to continually send safety messages to the child’s active amygdala. Safety messages are sent when a parent responds to a child’s distress signal, and is able to comfort a child in need. Responsive parents that are able to recognize their child’s distress, send the message to the child’s primitive brain that they are safe and understood, thereby allowing the child to let their guard down to begin exploring the world around them. Before the age of 18 months, children need to feel safe. All interactions with a child’s brain at this age should be geared towards increasing and emphasizing safety. Coding games that attempt to stimulate a higher part of the child’s brain are not appropriate at this time, as the brain is focused on safety.

18 month – 3 years

Children between the ages of 18 months to 3 years are also primarily operating from the primitive parts of their brains, but have incorporated the limbic system, or the emotional brain. Children ages 2 to 3 tend to be extremely emotional, displaying dramatic mood swings and trouble regulating their physical bodies when they become too emotionally stimulated. The focus for children of this age should be on physical regulation and learning to control their bodies. Children at this age need to be able to manipulate objects, move around a safe play space, and work on both gross and fine motor development. Building blocks and large puzzle pieces can be introduced at this age as a very primitive form of coding, allowing children to manipulate and move the objects around in various ways to create different patterns. This age is about trying things out and learning how things work together with no sense of accomplishment or goal behind the behavior. The child is simply trying new activities and manipulating objects for the sake of exploring.

Pre-school age

Once children have acquired skills over controlling their physical body, they are then able to begin working on social and emotional regulation. We typically see this beginning around the pre-school age, in which children are in the early stages of playing socially and interacting with other children, learning to share and take turns, and gaining control over their emotions and impulses. The focus of development in pre-school should be on social regulation, not academic success. Children simply do not have the brain development to be able to engage in intellectual activities and goal-oriented behavior at this time. Activities for this age should allow for plenty of movement, but can begin incorporating more complex tasks such as more difficult puzzles, jump rope, skipping, and playing musical instruments. The activities at this age are still precursors to coding games, as coding games usually tend to have a goal behind the behavior.

5 – 6 years

Due to what we now know about optimal brain development, the earliest age I would recommend directive, goal oriented coding games is around the age of 5 or 6 (typically when most children enter kindergarten). At this point in their development, children are just beginning to gain access to the higher functioning parts of their brain that deal with executive functioning. Games that stimulate this part of the brain are now appropriate if the child has gained appropriate maturity in terms of physical, social, and emotional regulation.

Coding games involving logic and problem solving are appropriate for children after the age of 5 or 6, and can help encourage optimal development by stimulating newly functioning parts of their brain. We also know that children continue learn best through play, so coding games that are interactive and incorporate play and motor movement are more developmentally appropriate than coding games that are solely on a screen. A popular coding game for children starting at the ages of 5-6 is Osmo, which combines the use of an iPad with physical blocks and materials, integrating and optimizing the connections in the child’s brain.

An important take-home point

Coding games are wonderful for stimulating your child’s brain and providing opportunities to learn coding and different ways of thinking, as long as it is not introduced before the age of 5 or 6 (depending on your child’s unique stage of development). Introducing these activities before a child has gained the maturity to access the higher parts of their brain can hinder development in other areas, sometimes causing delays in social and emotional regulation. Children must first develop in the relationship between parent and child, progress to learning to control their body and emotions, and finally begin academic work and developing their use of logic and learning. Activities before the age of 5 should primarily focus on emphasizing safety, physical movement, sensory exploration, and connecting with primary caregivers. Once these milestones have been attained, coding games can be introduced to continue stimulating your child’s brain and help them develop greater executive functioning.