20 Best Programming Languages for Kids

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October 12, 2018 11:40 AM
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What are the best programming languages for kids? We’ve come up with a curated list of some of the most fun, useful, and even challenging programming languages your kids may enjoy.

Choosing a Programming Language That’s Right for Your Child

While we can provide some general recommendations on age groups for different programming languages, it will still be individual. Some young kids may simply have a talent for programming and can dive right into a complicated language like C++. Conversely, an older child may take to a visual programming interface that helps them do something fun like build a gaming environment, but they might have little interest or aptitude for written programming languages. Generally speaking, kids ages 5-8 will do better with visual programming environments. Starting at age 8, some kids may demonstrate an ability to dig into the text of a language, but you probably want to start them off with something simple. As we get into the pre-teens and ages 13 and up, full programming languages can be taught, depending, once again, on the child (and the language).

Visual Coding Tools vs. Manipulating the Programming Code Itself

Just remember, once you start programming “by hand” – that is, you are typing out statements and editing the actual code itself – you must pay a lot of attention to detail. One wrongly placed semicolon can ruin the entire program. For some kids, focusing on this level of detail may be frustrating. This is why many “programming languages” for kids are software built to create an easy programming interface on top of the actual language. In such a visual programming environment, the software is taking the child’s instructions and ultimately writing out the “real” code underneath. This is often done by the child dragging and dropping blocks of “code” with the mouse – with the keyboard not really needed.

What Type of Programming Language Would Be Best for Your Child?

Another thing to consider when choosing programming languages for children is whether the language is compiled or interpreted. A language that requires “compilation” (like C++) can be a bit more frustrating to learn for the beginner.

1. Compiled Programming Languages

The reason is, a program that uses a compiled language has to be “compiled” first before it is run. So, you would write your code out in C++, then you use another program to parse that code and pack it up into a running program (executable). Once the program is “compiled,” it’s ready to go and cannot be edited further. The problem with compiled programming languages is that you have to get the code right before you run the compilation command. One wrong bit of syntax and the whole thing will choke. You have to go back to the drawing board. That said, not all compiled languages are bad for kids. BASIC (which we cover below, and can be both compiled and interpreted) is relatively easy to learn and there can be a great sense of satisfaction from compiling and running a completed BASIC program.

2. Interpreted Programming Languages

Interpreted languages run on the fly – they are “interpreted” as they go. A lot of what fuels the World Wide Web runs on interpreted languages because compiling every bit of code to run web pages just wouldn’t be realistic or feasible. Perl, PHP, and JavaScript are website workhorses that are interpreted programming languages. To further confuse this issue, you can technically run interpreters and compilers on many languages traditionally considered one or the other. (JavaScript can be compiled, for example, though that is not its historical or common use.) Many people also confuse scripting languages such as HTML and CSS as “programming” languages. HTML is a markup language – it basically identifies how a page should display. It does not create any sort of interactive capabilities. It must call upon programming languages such as JavaScript to do that. CSS is similar and is officially called a “style sheet language.”

3. Object-Oriented Programming vs. Procedural Languages

Object-oriented programming will be the preferred type of programming for your child to learn someday if they ever want to become a professional programmer. However, they might benefit first from learning how to program in a more “old-school” procedural language. The simple difference is that procedural programming runs through a logical progression of statements, often with structures such as “IF” and “THEN” (IF this happens, THEN do this). Object-oriented programming is based on objects that can connect with and interact with other objects in a program. It is less linear and more holistic. It can be a little harder to understand at first, but easier in the long run to do many complex things. BASIC is a procedural language. Java is object-oriented.

20 Types of Programming Languages and Tools Your Kids Can Try

With a better understanding of the types of interfaces and languages your kid might work with, here is a roundup of the best programming languages for kids.

1. BASIC (Small Basic and Just BASIC)

Back in the day when the personal computer was first gaining traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, BASIC was where it was at. BASIC was the programming language all the new computer owners would try to create short little programs on their 8088 computers and Commodore 64s. Despite the popularity of Visual Basic in the 90s, BASIC has fallen by the wayside as a serious programming language. Still, it’s a great language for your younger kids to try if they want to get their feet wet in real programming code. Why? Because it is easy, and the syntax sounds like what it does: “IF ... THEN ... ELSE” For a modern, simplified version of BASIC, try Microsoft’s Small Basic or Just BASIC.

2. Alice

Great for younger kids, Alice is a block-based visual environment developed by Carnegie Mellon University.

3. Blockly

Blockly is Google’s project. It’s a way to visually program using interlocking blocks.

4. Scratch

MIT developed Scratch, another great visual environment for younger kids and anyone preferring to work visually.

5. CoderZ

CoderZ is not a programming language but a Java overlay that allows kids to create their own virtual 3D robots. As they progress, they can learn more about the underlying Java code.

6. HTML and 7. CSS

As mentioned above, the website languages HTML and CSS are not technically programming languages, though they are erroneously called that sometimes. Learning HTML and CSS, however, can teach kids how to handle text-based syntax, and it gives them the foundation for learning real programming languages used for websites such as JavaScript and PHP.

8. Perl

Perl was instrumental in building the World Wide Web. Whenever you sent a form through a website, it was usually written in Perl. It was eventually supplanted from its top dog position by PHP and JavaScript, but it is still a highly useful language for web development. Perl is an interpreted language that is, at its core, procedural but has object-oriented capabilities. Some of the syntax can be challenging. It is best for older or talented children who may tinker with Linux. Perl will help them in system administration.

9. PHP

PHP should ideally be learned after HTML, as much of what we do today with PHP involves pulling up and displaying web pages (with HTML). PHP can certainly do other things, but it’s best known for making interactive web pages. It is the programming code underneath popular website content management systems such as Drupal and WordPress. PHP is interpreted and should be easy to learn for more mature kids with some knack for programming.

10. JavaScript

JavaScript should not be confused with Java – the two are different languages. JavaScript is a lightweight interpreted, object-oriented programming language that is used on most websites today. Like HTML and PHP, if your kid wants to learn web design, they should learn JavaScript.

11. Java

One of the big reasons many kids end up learning Java is for the simple reason that they want to build on Minecraft. You can use graphical interfaces and special software, for example, to build a Minecraft Mod without understanding the underlying code (Java). One such example is MCreator – and it’s not even created for kids, but adults who simply want the freedom to create without messing with code. At some point, however, the kids will want more control. They can then learn Java.

12. Ruby

Ruby, like BASIC, has a very easy syntax and is a good introduction to code for young programmers. A free tutorial is available online to give it a try.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Kodu (game creator)
  2. C++ (advanced compiled language)
  3. Twine (interactive fiction tool)
  4. Arduino (prototyping platform)
  5. Unreal Blueprints (visual gameplay scripting system)
  6. Python (object-oriented programming language)
  7. Swift Playgrounds (iPad app builder)
  8. LEGO Mindstorms (robot-building program)

Let Your Kids Explore Programming

Likely, your kid may end up surpassing you in technical knowledge rather quickly. While this article provides a starting point for the various programming resources your child might use, they will inevitably explore and find their own tools. And that’s a good thing!

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