Teach Your Kids to Code with One Hour of Minecraft Puzzles

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Teach Your Kids to Code with One Hour of Minecraft Puzzles
(Courtesy of Code.org)

How much time do your kids (or you!) spend stuck in front of a screen, poking around in some gamespace? Perhaps in one composed entirely of pixelated blocks? Fess up! Time to turn those hours of screen time into making time. I’m here to tell you how my kids’ elementary took on the challenge to introduce programming to every student at our K–5, and how you too can open up coding to the kids you want to transform into the Makers of tomorrow.

This doesn’t apply to just kids! It’s so satisfying to teach someone to program. Just about everyone, from ages 4 to 104, could use a little bit of time opening up the black box of all things tech to realize that the future is in their tablet-tickling hands.

There’s an opportunity in early December to be a part of something bigger: Code.org’s annual Hour of Code (HoC) celebration of all things algorithmic is just a few weeks away. HoC coincides with Computer Science Week, and it’s all about mobilizing millions to try their hand at putting together a few instructions, conditionals, and loops as a first taste of how programming works. Since its launch nearly two years ago, Code.org has introduced over 100 million people, mostly school kids, to the power of programming. They do this through the workshops led by people—like you—who have realized that power and want to pass it along to others.

Nearly 2 million people have signed Code.org’s online pledge that “Every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science.” This isn’t just about getting the kids you love best to learn. Let’s get every kid coding. Does your local school give its students this opportunity? If not, you can make a difference!

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 8.22.18 AM
(Courtesy of Code.org)

New to this arsenal of irresistible and easy-to-use introductions to coding is Minecraft. That creative digital utopia that every kid loves (and which many teachers do, too), teamed up with Code.org to take its bitmapped pickaxe to K-12 education and carve out some space for computer science.

Jens Bergensten, lead developer at Mojang, tells a story pretty common in the software industry: he was a kid who loved gaming and wanted to make his own video games, one thing led to another, and now he and his pals are gazillionaires. When we had him on Maker Camp 2014 we learned that Jens started making his first games at age 11 using BASIC and Turbo Pascal.

Minecraft tutorials for Hour of Code use a block-based language called Blockly. If you pop open the hood you’ll see some real-deal JavaScript under there. Kids solve fourteen Minecraft-themed puzzles by writing code (or rather by snapping code together). I’m excited about this because I know it’s going to blow my kids’ minds to get to play Minecraft at school. Their schoolmates loved HoC’s Angry Birds tutorials last December, with most of the students eagerly snatching up the bookmarks so they had a link to continue coding at home. I have to think that the kids are going to totally “lava” our workshops this year.

(Courtesy of Code.org)

We know that the Maker community is full of fans of Scratch, and Hour of Code is the perfect time to draw your friends into the global Scratch community. Scratch offers up three awesome Hour of Code tutorials, including one that features the stars of Cartoon Network’s show We Bare Bears. For those wanting to introduce younger kids to programming, check out their new friendly Scratch Jr. book.

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(Courtesy of scratch.mit.edu)

Let’s get down to the brass tacks. To add your school or makerspace to a growing list of over 93,000 HoC events the week of December 7 to 13, the first thing you should do is to check out the abundant resources on the HoC “Host an Event” page.

8 Logistical Tips

Tutorials are all well and good, but inspiring a room full of kids can be a challenge no matter what the topic. I talked to our school’s Hour of Code kingpin, Henry Sobel, about how he went about setting up the sessions so that all 300 or so students at the school had a chance to dip their toes into coding. Here are our tips for things to think about that may not be on the HoC prep list:

  1. Recruit. While videos and tutorials abound, you can’t do this alone. The big challenge is wrangling enough parents and other volunteers to help: at least 2–3 per class is ideal. (That’s why we’re telling you about the Hour of Code now, so that you have a few weeks to get helpers signed up. As the tutorials are fairly basic, a background in programming is less important than having patience, basic computer skills, and enthusiasm for these students’ future.)
  2. Review. Suggest to every volunteer that they try the tutorials at home first before helping the kids.
  3. Run in place. Make sure you load, open, and test your tutorial software or programming environment on each piece of hardware (laptops, tablets, or desktop computers)—schools often have firewall issues that can vary, even from machine to machine.
  4. Recharge. If using portables (like laptops or tablets), make sure that you allow for a charging break in your schedule. Does the room you’re using have enough outlets, or a charging cart, to go around? Also, be sure to charge the laptops the night before.
  5. Backup with paper. Write the URL for your chosen tutorial on scraps of paper to have at each station. The kids will inadvertently close windows. Also try to have some offline activities that relate to programming in your back pocket in case everything in your original plan falls apart.
  6. Be playful. As you get started with your workshop, emphasize that programming is about solving puzzles and having fun. The kids don’t need to know the stuff you might care about (like the importance of STEM subjects). Keep it light-hearted and celebrate their special Hour of Code experience! HoC comes but once a year. Consider running a physical demo as part of the introduction, such as the classic game where kids give a set of instructions to a classmate to see whether they can get to their destination.
  7. Borrow peripherals. Younger students (like our first graders) struggle with the trackpads, so try to have computer mice or other peripherals on hand to plug in in case they’re more adept at using those.
  8. Pairing up works well for younger kids. Teachers should set up pairs ahead of time if they need to share computers.

If running a workshop in early December is too intimidating, keep in mind that anytime is a good time to learn. Beth Espinoza, who teaches at the San Francisco Friends School, evaluated a number of different platforms to use to introduce the kids to programming and shared these with a group of Maker educators last week. These are great for using during HoC, as a followup afterwards, or anytime you want to get kids coding.

Beth’s notes on introductory coding platforms

  • Hour of Code Puzzles with MinecraftAngry BirdsStar Wars, Disney’s Frozen; some kids may need some assistance with reading; no audio; ok on iPad Mini; uses JavaScript, but kids aren’t typing in the code; tutorials have video introductions including household names and diverse programmers; students have an option to sign in to save their progress
  • Scratch Junior: for iPads, for ages 5-7, a great lead-in to Scratch
  • Scratch: popular web-based programming language; check out Getting started with Scratch and Getting creative with Scratchmake a holiday card
  • Kodable: iPad, desktop, and Android-compatible; ages 5+; can set up so students can continue where they left off
  • Lightbot (One-Hour Coding): iPad, Android, and web browser; some reading involved with commands; non-readers cannot use independently
  • Tynker:drag-and-drop coding that eliminates syntax, with option to show the code as text, school info and a video; good for K–8; getting started videos to help teachers create a classroom, add students, choose a lesson plan; tutorials and gallery contain ready-to-use projects and lessons; info about coding for 2nd–7th graders
  • Blocklygame-based programming
  • Daisy the DinosauriPad only; requires some reading; simple block-based programming
  • Hopscotch: iPad only; free ebook on Hopscotch challenges; angles (90, 180, 360…) would be helpful to know
  • Karel the Dog on CodeHS: demos of types of programs; kids are actually typing the code; uses Ruby, not Java; only 4 simple directions, but might be challenging for some students; not sure about iPad usage, but works well on laptops; class setup is needed prior to student use
  • RoboMind Academy: program to control a virtual robot to move, pick up, paint, etc. using text instructions; fully self-contained online course with short presentations, movies, quizzes and automatic guidance/hints to help with the programming exercises; definitely need a mouse to do this on a Chromebook (zooming and panning around the robot world, scrolling down to get help); good sound effects!; connects “drag-and-drop” programming to a programming language; not a lot of documentation, but you can click “Help” for detailed instructions; introduces loops and conditionals

For students who have some coding experience…

  • Code Monster: features two adjacent boxes — one displays code, the other shows what the code does, and as you play around with the code with some help from a prompt, you learn what each command does
  • Beetle Blocks (alpha version): 3D coding option; make a 3D print
  • Code Academychoose from various courses to explore making a website, and programs such as: Ruby on Rails, Java, CSS
  • Code Combatlearn coding by playing a game
  • Khan Academyintroduction to programming variables
  • Beyond Hour of Code for K-5 students: Keep Learning! 20+ hours of programming curriculum will be available for students that want to dive deeper into programming.   

Beth also suggests EdSurge’s Coding Resources. To Beth’s list I’ll add these two that Maker Ed has listed on its Resources page:

We all know why getting kids to code is important. We hear all about how tech companies need more people to build the tools of the future, people of all identities and on all kinds of paths. Not every kid will become a programmer or a project manager or even anything connected to tech, but even the poets and veterinarians and florists and historians benefit from having a basic understanding of how software works. This brand of literacy pays off in having a population full of potential employees AND informed citizens. Programming is a powerful skill every kid needs in their back pocket. Any kid can learn the basics.

(Courtesy of Code.org)

If the importance of computer science isn’t enough to motivate your school, HoC also dangles a very tasty bushel of carrots in front of teachers, with everything from gift cards to a $10,000 donation.

(Courtesy of Code.org)

Let’s all say hooray for Hour of Code!

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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