If you’re a teacher or you have a kid interested in programming, it can be confusing to sort out the dozens of options available. We’ve picked five great programming languages (and environments) that will give kids a head start in the world of software development.
The Language Isn’t as Important as the Motivation
Before we get started, it’s important to know that, arguably, the specific programming language your child uses isn’t as important as the motivation they have to achieve a certain goal, such as creating a game, solving a problem, or creating an app. Once your child learns a programming language, many of the concepts can transfer easily to other languages (with differences in syntax), so you almost can’t go wrong—as long as your kid has the enthusiasm to learn.
That being said, some languages and programming environments might be more fun than others. We’ve collected some of those here. Although this is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list, you’ll be off to a great start with any language below.
Scratch, an educational project from MIT, is a great programming language for kids because it is very visual and easy to use. Kids can drag and drop blocks of code to create their programs. Scratch is also very popular, so there are a lot of resources available for kids to learn from. To get started, visit scratch.mit.edu in any modern web browser. It’s completely free, and the projects you code online can be part of a fun community with others. Also, you can download a standalone Scatch programming editor if you prefer to work offline.
Swift is a relatively new language created by Apple for developing iOS and macOS apps. It’s powerful enough for professional developers, but it’s also friendly to learn and use, which makes it a good choice for kids. With Swift and the Xcode programming environment, kids can immediately see the results of their work, and if they get comfortable enough, the knowledge they gain will apply directly to iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV app development. To get started, download Apple’s free Swift Playgrounds app, which is available for both Mac and iPad. It’s a fun and colorful way to learn Swift.
As of August 2022, Python holds the top spot as the most popular programming language in the world, and that’s probably for good reason: It’s easy to learn and widely supported. That makes it ideal for kids who want to learn a language with a wide array of practical applications. Programmers use Python for web development, gaming, machine learning, and much more, so skills learned with Python will translate directly into potential future job skills. You can get started with Python for free on Windows, Mac, or Linux through Python’s official website or though online tutorials you can run in your browser, such as Introduction to Python hosted by Rasperry Pi.
Microsoft Small Basic
Microsoft designed Small Basic to help transition kids from block-based programming (like Scratch) to text-based coding, and it fits the bill nicely. If your kid uses Windows, it’s an ideal starting point. With only 14 keywords, it’s simple enough to grasp quickly but powerful enough to create fun demos, small games, and applications. It’s based on .NET, so the skills can transfer to Visual Basic. Although Small Basic runs through a custom application, it’s easy to share the results with others through the web. Microsoft hosts tutorials and resources online, and best of all, Small Basic is absolutely free.
Pico-8 or Solar2D (with Lua)
Pico-8 from Lexaloffle Games is a “fantasy console,” which means that it is a self-contained programming environment designed to look and feel like an old-school 8-bit game console. It uses the Lua scripting language. Pico-8 is great for kids because it is fun to use and has a low learning curve. Since it’s heavily game-oriented, kids can see their programs come to life in an interactive way. Pico-8 costs $15, and you can download it for Windows, Mac, and Linux from Lexaloffle’s website.
Also, if you learn Lua with Pico-8, you can apply the knowledge to other game engines such as Solar2D, which makes it easy for kids to dive into production game development beyond the constraints of a fantasy console. Solar2D is a free open source project available for Windows and Mac. Have fun, and happy coding!