How Coding Provides Skills That Can Help Children Cope With Distress

Child learning to code

Uncertain times are especially tough on young minds. Here’s how children and teens can learn coping strategies through coding.

Today, COVID-19 is a part of all of our lives, from our everyday conversations to the way we live and work. This time has been particularly challenging for parents of young children. Today’s children are under a massive amount of stress and it is well documented that the heavy stress loads have negative effects on their mental development.

There are many sources of stress for children whether it comes from the current global crisis, sensational news, or simply the everyday stressors of growing up in the 21st century. As a caregiver, you may be wondering how you can respond to this and support your children’s mental health and overall wellbeing.

While the current healthcare disruption may eventually come to an end, many are worried about the lingering mental health impacts as a result of distress caused by the pandemic, especially among children. According to a report by Epidemiology International (PDF, 374 KB), watching, reading, or listening to sensational news is likely to cause anxiety or distress. The sudden and continuous stream of news about a disease outbreak can cause children to experience these mental health issues, says the report.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially estimates that the likelihood of COVID-19 infection is small for young Americans, data on children quarantined during previous outbreaks such as the SARS, Ebola, and H1N1 pandemics indicates that children are more vulnerable to the psychological impacts of quarantine that interfere with their everyday lives relative to adults.

For children experiencing distress, coding can provide a helpful outlet. Coding combines elements of art and visual language while building on the fundamentals of creativity and problem-solving in a way where children are more comfortable expressing themselves: visually. Going beyond the realm of conventional treatment, the cognitive benefits of coding can help alleviate stressors in children during a time of crisis and provide constructive coping mechanisms for the future.

Defining Distress in Children

A recent review by Psychology Today explains the negative quarantine-related effects of isolation and restriction from usual lifestyles on children’s physical and mental health. Compounding the issue is the fact that many parents do not have the resources to help their children, and as a result, there is growing concern that the psychological impact of COVID-19 on children could potentially be overlooked.

Distress in quarantined children can manifest differently according to age, as outlined in a parenting resource by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).

For example, children in the preschool age group have experienced reactions such as speech difficulties, clinging behaviors, bad dreams, and fear of being alone. Older children in the school (6-12) and adolescent (13-18) age groups experience reactions such as sleep disturbances, physical symptoms (headaches, rashes), and appetite changes.

Coping Strategies for Children and Teens Experiencing Distress in Quarantine and Beyond

The following coping strategies were compiled by NCTSN as part of a comprehensive list of children’s reactions to the stress of an infectious disease outbreak as well as ways parents and caregivers can help them cope, broken down by age group.

1. Preschool Age Group:

  • Show patience and tolerance
  • Provide reassurance (verbal and physical)
  • Encourage expression through play, reenactment, story-telling
  • Plan calming, comforting activities before bedtime

2. School Age Group (Ages 6-12):

  • Show patience, tolerance, and reassurance
  • Encourage play sessions and staying in touch with friends through telephone and Internet
  • Promote regular exercise and stretching
  • Engage in educational activities (workbooks, educational games)
  • Set gentle but firm limits
  • Encourage expression through play and conversation

3. Teen Age Group (Ages 13-18): 

  • Show patience, tolerance, and reassurance
  • Encourage continuation of routines
  • Encourage outbreak discussion with peers and family (but don’t force)
  • Stay in touch with friends through telephone, Internet, video games
  • Plan strategies to enhance health promotion behaviors

How Coding Can Combat Distress

In recent years, coding and computer literacy have become recognized as important parts of childhood education, even replacing the teaching of a second language for many young learners. However, one often overlooked benefit of coding may be the ability to teach children about coping with distress through problem-solving, creativity, and computational thinking. Moreover, computing projects can provide a structure that allows children to foster persistence, collaboration, and communication. In other words, engaging in coding exercises can provide learners of all ages with a variety of coping skills recommended by NCTSN.

Problem-Solving and Creativity

A growing body of research today suggests that fostering a child’s problem-solving skills can improve their overall mental health. A study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that children who lack problem-solving skills may be at a higher risk of mental health issues.

Many parents and teachers introduce problem-solving through modelling and instruction, testing children’s logic and critical thinking. This is often traditionally taught through various activities such as block play and obstacle courses, according to Adah Chung, an occupational therapist specializing in school/special education. These simple activities foster a child’s ability to anticipate, predict outcomes, and understand consequences — but they are far from the only method of doing so.

Unlike traditional learning activities like block play and obstacle courses, children who learn to code are introduced to both problem-solving and creativity, allowing them to build their own unique projects, explore community ideas, and express who they are, as per Marina Umaschi Bers, professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development.

“[Children] also learn how to manage frustration and find a solution, rather than giving up when things get challenging. They develop strategies for debugging their projects. They learn to collaborate with others and they grow proud of their hard work”, says Bers.

Through the application of coding and computational exercises, children and young adults experiencing feelings of distress or confusion — quarantine-related or not — may veritably build up resilience and rely on new, proven coping mechanisms.

Computational Thinking

Computational thinking has become another fundamental skill for children much like reading, writing, and arithmetic, according to a study by Yune Tran, an education professor helping to teach computer coding to elementary children. Children in Tran’s study identified the social benefits of learning programming including persistence, working hard, and not giving up, all of which can contribute to a stronger sense of coping in stressful situations.

A 2019 World Bank report titled Children Learning to Code: Essential for 21st Century Human Capital explores the relationship between computational thinking, mental health, and coding. The report suggests that coding is closely interlinked with computational thinking, and thus by getting children to learn coding, we help them develop computational thinking ability.

Furthermore, the World Bank Report argues that the best reason for children to learn coding and computational thinking is because it brings about improvement in mental health development — cognitive as well as non-cognitive.

Why Children Should Learn to Code (And How It May Help Them)

While coding offers many benefits for children, here are four reasons why they should learn how to code, and how it may foster mental development that leads to better coping and stress maintenance.

1. Fosters Problem-Solving and Creativity:

Problem-solving and creativity are key components to coding. Combined, they allow children to express who they are, says Bers in an article for PBS.

2. Improves Children’s Logic and Critical Thinking:

One of the most important benefits of coding in general is the ability to improve a child’s critical and logical thinking, according to a 2019 book titled Innovative Technologies and Learning.

3. Improves Mental Development:

Teaching coding to children can result in improvements to cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, as well as non-cognitive skills like teamwork and collaboration, as noted by World Bank.

4. Fosters Early Literacy Development:

As a literacy, coding invites new ways of thinking, says Bers. Bers urges people to think beyond the traditional view of coding as a technical skill, and instead as a way for children to achieve literacy in the 21st century, just as they would reading and writing.

Learning Through Play: Coding Activities for Kids and Teens

Introducing children to coding can be challenging, especially for parents who are not familiar with the intricacies of computer programming. To help you get started, here are five easy-to-use coding games, downloadable apps, interactive websites, and other fun exercises. These games and activities may help to minimize stress and build skills such as problem-solving and creativity.

Coding Activities for Preschoolers

Hopster Coding Safari: This free app for iOS can teach the fundamentals of coding to children as young as two years old. The animal-themed activities can help give your child a head start in programming.

Hopscotch-Programming for Kids: This bite-sized intro to programming allows kids to create games and animations by dragging and dropping commands and instructions into a script

Daisy the Dinosaur: Built by the creators of Hopscotch-Programming, this app lets children as young as four learn the fundamentals of coding. Kids will intuitively grasp the basics of objects, sequencing, loops and events by solving app’s challenges.

Robot Turtles Board Game: Kids won’t know it, but while they’re playing, they’re learning the basics of coding. This fun and engaging game gets kids to write their own code using playing cards.

Coding Activities for School Age Children

Swift Playgrounds: This Apple-designed iPad app was created to teach coding through fun and interactive puzzles. The app requires no coding knowledge, making it a great choice for parents and children just starting out.

Minecraft for Education: Minecraft is one of the most popular digital games played by children today — and now there is an educational edition that aims to help children and young adults learn coding skills. Additionally, the game promotes creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving through an immersive hands-on experience.

Bits and Bricks: This LEGO®-designed puzzle game uses LEGO® blocks to teach logical programming skills. The game is part of the company’s Hour of Code initiative aimed towards children as young as five.

Kodu: Kodu is a Microsoft coding game platform that teaches children how to design, play, and share their own creative video games while learning the fundamentals of code.

Coding Activities for Teens

Raspberry Pi Kit: A Raspberry Pi Kit is a great way to expose older children to coding. This affordable credit-card sized computer can serve as a foundation for countless child and teen-friendly coding projects. These projects can be easily found online.

MakeBlock: Makeblock is an open source construction platform to turn ideas into success. Children and teens can build their own physical robot from scratch and see the results of their code immediately.

Tello: Tello by Ryze Tech is an impressive and programmable mini drone that is perfect for older children and teens that are interested in coding. The device can be coded with Scratch software to perform movements and capture video.

MINDSTORMS®: This is another LEGO®-designed resource that teaches children how to code 3D robots. The application brings programming to life through hands-on, project-based learning using LEGO® blocks.

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