After school programs in coding prepare kids for growing job market

Computer coding classes are more than just a fun after-school activity – it’s giving your kids a leg to stand on when they’re ready to hit the big bad job market.

As parents, there’s this pressure to get everything right (much of it is internal, granted), from what we feed our kids to giving them all the opportunities they need to thrive. When it comes to extra-curricular activities, I offer my kids all the usual choices: music, dance, drama, swimming (non-negotiable), sports, and so on. Not much lights them up – until the day we got a flyer for a nearby Toronto tech school that offered after-school program and weekend classes on coding for kids and teens.

I’d been struggling to find something that my son would do without a fight (only so much fight in a mama) and the thought of taking a class to learn coding for Minecraft, one of his favourite games, had him – and my 11-year-old daughter - literally jumping for joy.

My first instinct was that my son should be doing something physical so he can get exercise. But, the truth is, other than exercise and team play, I can’t really say what else my son’s weekly run around the soccer field gives him. My boy will never be an athlete (he has my genes, after all) and his daily running, scootering, skateboarding, playground climbing, tag-playing gets him more cardio than I get in a week.

So, why not, I thought? And, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  Computer coding skills are something he can build on and will carry with him for the rest of his life. These are skills that are not being taught in school in any significant way, so what better use of after school program time than something that he’s not only excited about but will also help set him up for life?

Coding the future

Confession time: one of the reasons I so quickly got behind the idea of coding class for my kids is because I wanted to start building my own little (like, under 4’ tall) IT team. As an entrepreneur with a staff of none, I often find myself muttering very bad words while searching the web for ‘how to’ instructions on updating my website. It’s an act of frustration and inefficiency, and I’m always wishing I knew more about ‘this stuff.’  I know I’m not alone. This is the how it is for many parents who grew up in the 80s and early 90s, for whom computers were little more than a word processor and the Internet was still a novelty mostly used for sending email to someone you met on vacation or your cousin in the U.S.

So, what is this ‘stuff’ exactly? Steve Engels is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He likens coding with giving someone directions to your house or a recipe to follow, but in a digital context. Engels has noticed a change in recent years.

Steve Engels pictured with University of Toronto students. Image source: utoronto.ca

Steve Engels pictured with University of Toronto students. Image source: utoronto.ca

“Demand for computer science programs has been increasing dramatically, both here at U of T and at schools around the world,” he says. “Some people are looking for ways to integrate computing with other fields of interest, such as medicine, law, music or art. Others are looking at the growing tech industry, and want to become one of the experts in this growing field. And still others want to be the ones creating new, state-of-the-art technology.”

But, if kids and teens wait until their post-secondary years, they’re already behind in the game. I want my kids to know more than me. I was (half) joking when I said I want them to be my IT crew but, really, I want them to have choices and thrive in this quickly changing world and job market.

“Coding is a skill that's becoming more vital every day, and not just for people in fields like computer science or engineering,” says Engels. It's becoming a part of nearly every industry as technology is integrated in nearly everything we do. Learning how to code unlocks a lot of doors, so that people who grow up with this technology don't just learn how to be consumers of it, but producers as well.”

Margaret Galvin, head of Talent Acquisition at Accenture Canada. Image source: LinkedIn

Margaret Galvin, head of Talent Acquisition at Accenture Canada. Image source: LinkedIn

Margaret Galvin is the Head of Talent Acquisition at Accenture Canada, a global professional services organization with over 400,000 employees. She says that teaching kids the language of computers is the foundation for employment success.

“It's really important for kids to start learning these skills,” she ways. “The jobs we are seeing now, and future needs, are heavy with technology.”

Galvin notes that there’s currently a dearth of certain skill sets in job candidates. “There’s a noticeable gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) for women so it’s important to get kids interested early, to promote STEM at early ages. 

You might like: 15 Top Rated STEM Toys on Amazon

Not just for computer geeks

The first Saturday morning I dropped my kids off at their Minecraft modding class (I still barely know what that means), my 11-year-old daughter jumped excitedly out of the car and gleefully yelled ‘Nerds!!’  It was a hilarious throwback to what the computer lab used to be synonymous with (think Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science) yet the stigma is long gone.

No longer are computer skills only for wearers of pocket-protectors and coke-bottle glasses who want to work in a computer- or tech-related industry. Now, these skills are as expected on a resume as an email address and a cellphone number. They are for anyone who wants to even register on an employer’s radar. 

Eren Fernandez is the founder of The Cube, the technology school my kids are so excited about attending. “We’re not trying to train kids to be computer scientists or designers,” she says. “We want to give them exposure to the technology and possibilities so they have the chance to see if they enjoy it.”

She explains that the courses offered at The Cube aren’t about training kids for future jobs but more about giving them a taste of coding to see if it’s something they want to pursue through school and, maybe, into the job market.

For me, that’s perfectly in line with what I’m hoping to offer my kids with any after-school programs: a chance to see if it’s something they’re into. The added bonus is that, in this instance, it’s going to serve them well no matter what.

Coding Everywhere

So, why are computer skills so important in any industry?  I asked Galvin why it matters so much.

“It's not just the technology knowledge itself employers are looking for,” she says. “It's the tech plus the experience, so ‘design thinking.’ This is going to be huge for kids.”

‘Design thinking’ is the term I keep hearing when I mention my kids are learning things like how to use Java to design modes in Minecraft. Design thinking is about the process, learning how to merge creative thinking with technology to figure out what’s possible and to problem solve.

In the entrepreneur circles I’m a part of, some of the most common asks are about what can be done techonology-wise and how to get there – with someone’s website, payment processing, creating online courses, hosting webinars, and so on. Basically, people are looking for that recipe that Engels talked about. These aren’t technology and computer entrepreneurs. They’re photographers, in-home service providers, artists, nutritionists, writers, consultants, and more.

“When I'm asked about fields students go into after graduating, I ask people to think about all the industries that use computers these days,” says Engels. The question isn't as much about what fields students can go into with a computing degree, but rather what fields wouldn't benefit from the application of computing. Of course, many of our students look to the traditional placements in companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and so on. But there are as many who take their computer science knowledge and apply it to other industries. There are no limits to where computer scientists can apply their skills.

Not only do coding skills give kids a head start on landing their dream job, it’s also a way for them to forge their own path.

“Many new graduates create or join a startup,” says Engels. “Instead of joining an established company, they see a need that can be satisfied with technology, and set out on their own to fill that need. That's one of the liberating things about having these skills.”


AUTHOR: Kama Lee Jackson is a freelance writer and founder of Bloom, teaching prenatal and postpartum classes to parents and parents-to-be. She lives in Toronto with her two children, with whom she gets endless pleasure by verbally subtitling their two cats.

15 Top Rated STEM Toys on Amazon

15 top rated stem toys on amazon

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of STEM Toys. STEM (or, sometimes STEAM) stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, (Art) and Math. These are toys designed to stimulate creativity and learning from toddlers to teens. Due to the rising amount of jobs in technology, it makes sense to cultivate learning in these fields so kids are better equipped with some of the basic concepts.

You might like: After-school programs in coding prepare kids for growing job market

At The Cube, we aim to introduce and develop the same thinking skills in design and tech through our various after-school programs like Minecraft school, coding for kids, and robotics. But our list of STEM toys available on Amazon can take those learning opportunities right into your home. 

Playing with toys like these can help your kids discover if they have an interest in science, tech, engineering, art or math, and develop the basic thinking skills they need for learning through play.

If you have no time to head out to the toy store with kids in tow to pick up the latest gadget, this list of the 15 top rated STEM Toys on Amazon (the Canadian version) is sure to help you out. Each toy has been chosen based on an average rating close to 5-stars, and have more than half a dozen reviews – so you know more than one random buyer who loved it. We don't endorse any particular toy on this list, and encourage you to research each brand and toy for yourself to see if it's right for you and your family. 

 

1. Elenco Snap Circuits Jr.

List price: $46

Skills: Technology, Engineering

Ages: 5+

Elenco Snap Circuits Jr. Image source: Amazon.ca

Elenco Snap Circuits Jr. Image source: Amazon.ca

Snap Circuits is a fun way to learn about electronics by building electrical circuits. Kids can build working models of a photo sensor, a flashing light, and an adjustable-volume siren. More than 100 exciting projects are included with over two dozen snap together parts. No tools or prior knowledge of electronics is necessary. Each kit can be upgraded with additional parts purchased separately. Elenco Snap Circuits was awarded the National Parenting Center-Seal of Approval.

Parent comment:

“This is an excellent set for teaching basic circuits to children. My son (6 1/2) loves working through the instruction manual, and can easily put together the circuits. He especially loves the circuits that use the music chip.”

 

2. MAGBUILDER 66 Pieces Magnetic Blocks Toy

List price: $45

Skills: Engineering, Art, Math

Ages: 2+

MAGBUILDER magnetic toy blocks. Image source: Amazon.ca

MAGBUILDER magnetic toy blocks. Image source: Amazon.ca

Magbuilder are magnetic pieces in various colours and shapes that attach to build all kinds of things. This kit comes with letters too so kids can improve their spelling and word recognition through play. There are also wheels for making vehicles that can roll around the house or down ramps. The imagination is the only limitation with this toy. This toy teaches children problem-solving skills, fine motor skills, creativity and brain development. They’re surprisingly fun for adults too!

Parent comment:

“Awesome set. I bought this for my 2 year old granddaughter and she loves it. My 28 year old daughter probably loves it more.”

 

3. Makeblock DIY mBot Kit (Bluetooth Version)

List price: $120

Skills: Technology, Engineering, Math

Ages: 8+

Makeblock mBot Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

Makeblock mBot Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

This is an adorable programmable robot kit for kids to learn coding. Kids get hand-on experience about graphical programming, electronics and robotics in an all-in-one solution for robotics learning and education right at home. It uses a similar technology and process to our own after-school robotics program for kids. This kit contains 38 assembly parts that can be assembled in 10 minutes and color-labeled ports for convenient wiring. The programming is built on an open source platform which allows for continuous learning and expansion. Requires a downloadable app and Bluetooth to interact and program the robot.

Parent comment:

“This is an excellent kit for the price, my 8 year old was able to assemble with minimal supervision, and the included default program has several control modes that offered quite a few hours of fun even before we dug in to the coding.”

 

4. Learning Resources Mini Muffin Match Up

List price: $30

Skills: Math

Ages: 3+

Mini-Muffin Match Up. Image source: Amazon.ca

Mini-Muffin Match Up. Image source: Amazon.ca

Mini Muffin Match Up offers an alternative way to learn math with imaginative play. Through game based learning, kids learn color recognition, matching, sorting, counting, and early math skills. It can even be used for beginning addition and subtraction practice. The game uses circle inserts to determine what to sort or count. Then the colourful mini muffins are used to count out the number on the circle or match the color to the counters. The included Squeezy Tweezers™ increase fine motor skills and hone skills needed for writing.

Parent comment:

“Great educational game for the pre-schoolers. I'm an early childhood educator and have a four year old son. I got this for him but as soon as he grows out of it, I'll be bringing it in my classroom. Great for a quiet game, all at the same time practicing counting, sorting, matching and so much more because you can make up your own games!!!!”

 

5. Brain Game Cube

List price: $13

Skills: Math

Ages: 8+

Brain Game Cube. Image source: Amazon.ca

Brain Game Cube. Image source: Amazon.ca

Also known as a Gear Cube, this toy is like the Rubiks cube we all remember from childhood. Playing with it helps kids (and adults) focus while thinking through problem solving and discovering patterns. With endless combinations, the Brain Game Cube can be played with for hours, or picked up every once and a while to be worked on. The simplicity is part of its charm.

Parent comment:

“Bought one for myself and one for my son. I use mine at work. The kids love it too. Thanks!”

 

6. National Geographic Mega Fossil Kit

List price: $40

Skills: Science

Ages: 3+

National Geographic Mega Fossil Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

National Geographic Mega Fossil Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

Uncover ancient fossils with National Geographic’s Mega Fossil Kit. This hands-on science adventure teaches kids paleontology while digging up genuine fossils. The included tools and 15 varieties of fossils allow kids to excavate just like a real paleontologist. Each kit is unique and looks like a lot of fun for the kids who don’t always want to build stuff, and might prefer to chip away at their learning adventure.

Parent comment:

“This Fossil kit is simply amazing. My 11 year old loves it. He loves fossils and dinosaurs. I was so happy to find this product. I had no idea you could buy such a thing.”

 

7. Code-A-Pillar

List price: $55

Skills: Technology, Math

Ages: 3+

Code-A-Pillar. Image source: Amazon.ca

Code-A-Pillar. Image source: Amazon.ca

Kids use planning and problem-solving skills to program a path for the Code-A-Pillar. After rearranging his segments a few times, kids will discover that if they plan out a path for Code-a-pillar and put his pieces together in the right sequences, they can get him to follow it! The more kids rearrange Code-a-pillar pieces, they more they develop critical thinking skills by programming different combinations to send him in different directions. Once kids can 'program' a path for Code-a-pillar, the sky's the limit. Add a challenge into the mix by placing the 'Start' and 'Finish' targets on the floor. The path it takes to get there is up to your kids. Or you can turn any room into an obstacle course.

Parent comment:

“My 3 year old absolutely LOVE this toy....so do I. We even bought the expansion packs...would definitely recommend it but you do need some clear space for it to work best!”

 

8. K’Nex 100 Model Imagine Building Set

List price: $60

Skills: Engineering, Art

Ages: 7+

K'Nex Imagine Building Set. Image source: Amazon.ca

K'Nex Imagine Building Set. Image source: Amazon.ca

K’NEX are plastic rods and connectors which can be built into cars, planes, sea creatures, and anything the imagination can dream up. The illustrated instruction booklet provides 100 building ideas. It helps guide budding engineers to constructing amazing creations. Foster your kids’ imagination and watch them build a helicopter, motorcycle, dinosaur, or even a tall building! This educational toy provides endless entertainment. K’NEX supports the development of hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, problem-solving ability, spatial awareness, and exercising the imagination. All parts are proudly made in the USA using responsible manufacturing techniques, with strict quality and safety standards.

Parent comment:

“My kids have spent hours with this kit. I'm actually amazed at how it has spurred their curiosity and how creative they have been! I think kits like this are what all kids need.”

 

9. Mega Crystal Growing Lab

List price: $50

Skills: Science

Ages: 3+ with adult supervision

Mega Crystal Growing Lab. Image source: Amazon.ca

Mega Crystal Growing Lab. Image source: Amazon.ca

This is another fun National Geographic toy on the list. With the Mega Crystal Growing Lab, kids learn about crystal formation while magically growing crystals of their own in 8 different colors. This deluxe kit includes a night light display to put your 5 best crystals on display when you’re done. This chemistry kit is a great way to start a rock collection and inspire your child with a love of science. National Geographic provides a 100% satisfaction guarantee so that you can buy with confidence.

Parent comment:

“Very good quality, worth the money. My kids love it very much! A good educational and fun science kit for the kids.”

 

10. Melissa & Doug Abacus

List price: $18

Skills: Math

Ages: 1+

Melissa & Doug Abacus. Image source: Amazon.ca

Melissa & Doug Abacus. Image source: Amazon.ca

The abacus has been around for over 4,000 years and was perhaps one of the earliest STEM toys. Sometimes called a counting frame, the abacus was used as a calculator before modern number systems were developed. Still today, it’s a simple and fun way for kids to learn counting and math skills, and to explore patterns and colors. Melissa & Doug are known for good quality wooden products and this is no different. Kids can slide the beads for a visual and hands-on way to learn numbers and math concepts. There are many ways to play as skills develop. Several activity suggestions are included to keep kids coming back to this toy over and over again.

Parent comment:

“Awesome. Have purchased Mel & Doug stuff before - always good quality. This is a great little abacus - got my little ones skip counting and doing some creative math.”

 

11. Discover with Dr. Cool Ultimate Volcano Science Kit

List price: $24

Skills: Science

Ages: 3+ with supervision

Dr. Cool Volcano Science Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

Dr. Cool Volcano Science Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

Dr. Cool has turned the classic science experiment of adding vinegar and baking soda into the ultimate hands-on volcano experience. First kids use plaster and mold to make their own volcano chamber, then decorate it with the included brush and paints. Once dry, they use the eruption powder to make the volcano erupt. Also included are 3 genuine volcanic specimens including: a real geode, an obsidian arrowhead, and a floating piece of volcanic rock called pumice. The information guide teaches your kids all about their new specimens and how volcanoes form and why they erupt. It’s even won some awards including: Kids Product of the Year from Creative Child Magazine in 2012

Parent comment:

“My boys (4 & 6) loved making the volcano over flow and so did their friend (6) we gave one to as a birthday present :)”

 

12. Osmo Genius Kit Gaming System for iPad

List price: $130

Skills: Engineering, Art, Math

Ages: 6+

Osmo Genius Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

Osmo Genius Kit. Image source: Amazon.ca

This award winning product was named one of the top inventions of 2014 by Time Magazine. It’s a device that uses reflectors and software with the iPad to bring digital play into tactile learning. Osmo's game systems foster social intelligence and creative thinking with endless possibilities of physical play. Kids can do creative engineering, spelling, spatial puzzles, draw, and even do math. In this digital age, the iPad offers young minds a great platform for learning and playing. But, when kids are interacting only with a touchscreen, they're spending less time engaging with their physical world. Osmo is a technology system that bridges the physical and digital worlds by taking gameplay beyond the screen.

Parent comment:

“Amazing investment. Super fun and educational. I would suggest making the letters and numbers plastic instead of cardboard though (siblings haha yes I know it's for 5 and older but our two year old also LOVES to play this) but love it and would highly recommend getting this!!”

 

13. LEGO DUPLO My First Number Train Building Set

List price: $25

Skills: Engineering, Math

Ages: 1.5+

LEGO DUPLO Train Set. Image source: Amazon.ca

LEGO DUPLO Train Set. Image source: Amazon.ca

You can’t go wrong with LEGO DUPLO and small kids. The Number Train adds the element of learning to count and build a train. With numbered LEGO DUPLO bricks and 3 wagons, young builders will learn math skills while creating and constructing their own toddler-friendly train! Rebuild into a tunnel, building, dog house and more. This kit includes a child DUPLO figure and a dog for imaginative play.

Parent comment:

“amazing product. my son absolutely loves this set. in fact, he forgot about his full closet of toys after we got few of those sets. thank you LEGO :)”

 

14. Make Clay Charms by Klutz

List price: $20

Skills: Art

Ages: 5+ with supervision

Make Clay Charms by Klutz. Image source: Amazon.ca

Make Clay Charms by Klutz. Image source: Amazon.ca

This clay charm kit has all the materials needed to teach kids how to make their own clay charms, bake them, add shine and then attach their creations to the included bracelet. It comes with a book containing the directions and techniques need to make it easy to roll, shape and assemble adorable little clay critters. Kids can choose their colours and what critter to create, then learn the basics of shaping, blending, and assembly, finally moving on to baking and glazing. Klutz’s clear directions in the instruction book also gives helpful tips on how to avoid common problems, and suggestions on how to customize the works of art.

Parent comment:

“The instructions make it very easy to make these charms exactly as pictured, and they are so cute. I was very surprised and pleased with what my girls made with this kit. There's enough clay to make charms enough for approx. one charm bracelet. You will find your kids asking for more clay, and that is absolutely the only downfall.”

 

15. Think Fun Code Master

List price: $27

Skills: Technology, Math

Ages: 8+

Think Fun Code Master. Image source: Amazon.ca

Think Fun Code Master. Image source: Amazon.ca

This product is unique in that it teaches coding without the need for screen time. For 60 levels, players use programming logic to help their Avatar collect Crystals and land at the Portal. Players need to think carefully in each level, since only one specific sequence of actions will lead to success. This fun adventure game builds planning, sequential reasoning and problem solving skills in addition to teaching more complex coding concepts such as loops and conditional branching. While we still believe in the hands on approach to coding for kids and coding for teens classes, this game is an offline approach that will get players of all ages to take their first steps at becoming Code Masters.

Parent comment:

“A very simple but challenging game! It starts quite simple but quickly become more complex! It is great to be able to figure out programming without having to use electronics!”

 


AUTHOR: Rachel Di Martino is a Mom of two young kids and one of the coding instructors at The Cube School in Toronto. She's also the Chief Unicorn at Geek Unicorn, a Toronto-based company that specializes in web design and search engine optimization (SEO)