KTBYTE Computer Science Academy
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February 12, 2021

Best Kids Programming Languages of 2021

In our current digital age kids face more choices than ever as they get started learning to code. This can make the decision especially hard on parents, who want to choose pathways for their children that will engage them for years to come. Will young programmers learn best by starting with a block-based coding language like Scratch? Why all the hype about Python? What's the difference between C, C++, and C#? 

When I was a middle school student and captivated by computer games, the options for learning to code were much fewer than they are today. While this made some choices easier it also left me limited in the tools I had available to teach myself. As an 11-year-old I didn't feel ready to handle a professional integrated development environment (IDE), so I turned to the place that I most strongly associated with programming: the humble web browser.

Over the course of a few tutorials I picked up enough skills to build a basic web page and add cool effects with Javascript. Looking back, my early efforts were doomed to failure for a few reasons. One, I was trying to learn a markup language (HTML) at the same time as a programming language (JavaScript). Two, I didn't have an instructor or mentor to encourage me and offer advice on how to progress. And finally I had no idea how what I was learning related to the much broader subject of computer science.

At KTBYTE we've taught thousands of students to code using resources tailor-fit to their age, goals, and past experience. In this blog post we list the top coding languages of 2021. Our goal is to help you start your child on a path that will keep them excited about programming for years to come.

1. JavaBlocks

Best for young students who want to progress to typed out code

The main obstacle for many young kids learning to code is slow typing speed. Much like learning a spoken language, learning to code involves lots of repetition with basic rules or syntax. Practicing syntax by typing words and weird characters can be endlessly frustrating for small hands with little keyboard practice. 

JavaBlocks address this challenge by allowing young students to learn the rules of a powerful language (Java) without typing lines of code. Instead, our youngest students create programs using stacks of code blocks that mirror Java functions and objects. JavaBlocks projects help build a sense of community between young coders who can easily share and remix each other's favorite projects.

JavaBlocks is typically best suited for students in the age range of 8-10. If this sounds like a good fit for your child check out one of our JavaBlocks courses today!

2. Scratch

Best online community for young learners

Another platform for block-based code is Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Much like JavaBlocks, Scratch makes coding visually intuitive for young programmers by labeling blocks with simple instructions for the computer. The Scratch community is another huge draw for aspiring coders, with over 15 million registered users from around the world! In fact, many KTBYTE students who learn to code in JavaBlocks create similar projects in Scratch to share with their peers.

How do you know if Scratch is right for your child? The Scratch platform is widely considered to be the programming path with the lowest barrier of entry. It's completely free and offers many fun ways for kids to get started. Users can start coding their own projects or remix code created by other users. However, Scratch has few parallels to more advanced coding languages and doesn't always prepare students for their first typed programming course.

3. Processing (Java or Python)

Best for 10-14 year olds with no coding experience

Beginning coders love the Processing framework for how it makes typed code both accessible and instantly rewarding. The Processing project was started in 2001 at the MIT Media Lab, and later evolved in the Processing Foundation. As an open source project, Processing involves contributions from developers around the world with the shared goal of “empower[ing] people of all interests and backgrounds to learn how to program and make creative work with code”. 

One of the many advantages of learning to code with Processing is that it can be used with either Java or Python. Whatever language you choose, Processing offers functions to facilitate drawing and animating shapes and images. From this basic framework users can build everything from simple games to deeply involved generative art projects.

At KTBYTE we choose to teach the majority of our courses in Processing due to its versatility and visual nature. Students can type less than a dozen lines of code, click “Run”, and immediately see their program play out on an animated canvas. This allows them to learn concepts like conditionals, functions, and arrays without importing other libraries or learning the syntax of standard Java or C++. Moreover, having Processing as a start point allows students to easily transfer their skills to robotics or learn a professional language like Java or Python.

4. Java

Best for teens with some experience, easiest to switch to another language

As one of the most well-established and widely used programming languages Java offers an unparalleled set of online resources. Past coders have leveraged this powerful language to create everything from Android apps to best-selling computer games. This language also has the most coding jobs according to Northeastern University and Indeed.com. Java is an object-oriented programming language, making it easy to learn best practices for creating scalable applications. 

Though learning Java is more straightforward than low-level languages like C and C++, it still comes with its fair share of syntax to learn. For this reason we often recommend students start by learning JavaBlocks or Processing before graduating to the full Java environment. Once they reach this level programmers have endless opportunities at their fingertips. From placing in international coding competitions to acceptance into prestigious research programs, we are continually impressed by the ways students showcase their skills with this language.

Java is also the foundation of the popular game Minecraft. For this reason, many younger students may be motivated to learn Java by the potential to modify Minecraft or create their own version of it! Finally, Java shares similarities with a number of other coding languages (C++, Python, JavaScript) making it relatively easy to pick up any of those once you know Java.

5. Python

Easiest syntax to learn

Python has become increasingly popular in recent years as a first programming language to learn. This is due largely to its simplified syntax when compared to Java or C++. Python coders don't have to bother with curly braces or semicolons after each line of code. This makes writing Python code similar to typing in English. However, it also makes it harder to switch from Python to a different language. 

One advantage of learning Python is that it opens up a world of libraries you can include for different tasks. Creators of simple games and animations use the pygame and turtle modules, while more advanced users find support for coding artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. In fact, our machine learning courses use Python because of its libraries for big data and modeling neural networks.
One downside of Python is that any program written in this language will take longer to run than a similar program in Java or C++. This is because Python is an interpreted language, meaning the computer needs to run the code line by line instead of compiling and running it all at once. For this reason experts do not recommend Python for time-sensitive applications, including submissions to programming contests like the USACO.

6. C++

Best for older students and when execution time is a factor

I learned C++ when I first started taking computer science classes as a university student. To this day, I feel like this was the right time for me to be exposed to this language. C++ introduces programmers to concepts like memory allocation and pointers. In turn, this level of detail makes for an advanced understanding of computer science and blazing fast programs.

However, the “low-level” syntax of C++ does come with tradeoffs. It is more difficult to learn than either Java or Python, and doesn't come with as many resources. This also makes it harder to get any instant visual feedback when you run a program. For this reason, most young programmers will want to start off learning a different language then switch to C++ if they want to tackle new concepts or write faster code.

7. JavaScript

Best for web development

As I mentioned earlier, JavaScript felt like an accessible language to learn in the early 2000s. This holds true even today, when JavaScript supports everything from online games to the site you're on right now! The dominance of JavaScript online makes it easy to run your first program, either by launching a free website or typing code into your browser.

Unfortunately, JavaScript's prevalence on the internet also comes with some pretty significant downsides. Coders switching from another language are often frustrated by JavaScript's lack of error checking, such that bugs can go unnoticed until they crash your program. As the web development industry continues to expand at lightning speed JavaScript has to go through constant changes to keep up. This means that JavaScript programmers have to invest in learning new tools and libraries, even after they've been coding for years.

Choosing a Language

So what does all this mean in terms of choosing a programming language? Ultimately making the right choice can still feel daunting until you speak with a computer science instructor. The best way to narrow down your options is by considering any specific coding goals your child has. Then let them try a language or two that seem to fit their passion. Another major consideration is age and typing ability. For students in primary school or with a typing speed of less than 30 wpm, we recommend starting with a block-based language before moving on to typed code.

Whatever you choose as a first programming language, remember that this decision does not have to last a lifetime. In fact learning one programming language should make it fairly easy to switch languages down the road. This is one reason we teach most of our classes in Java. This way students can switch to C++, Python, or JavaScript and carry over the same skills and concepts.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article and showing interest in your child's development as a programmer! Please don't hesitate to reach out with any questions at [email protected] and visit us at https://www.ktbyte.com!

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