Get Your Gamer Learning: 3 Learn-to-Code Sites that are FUN! (~ 2 are FREE!)

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By Ed (and the kids)

We've got a couple of gamer kids.  You too?  Oh, the guilt we parents feel when they spend so much time staring at screens!  Wouldn't it be nice to have them do something that makes all that video game time a little more valuable?  And, would it be too much to ask, for that time to be educational too?!

Well, have we got a treat for you. Our little (actually, not so little anymore) gamers, have been testing and helping review their favourite "Build Your Own Video Game" websites.

Read on to get a parents' and kids' opinion of some of the best things online to learn about coding and video game design.

When I was a kid, I learned "Basic" and programmed on my Radio Shack Color Computer 3. Games were coded from books you could also buy from Radio Shack and involved typing several pages of code into the editor, typing "RUN", hitting <Enter> and hoping for no "SYNTAX ERRORS".

You could learn very little from it as the books usually didn't give much insight into the language of BASIC and once it actually worked, you didn't want to mess with it much and risk making it not work. But if you wanted to make your own game, this was it.

Fast forward 30+ years. Gaming consoles and signature titles now outsell some movies. Many games like the LEGO/Travellers Tales game franchise and Super Mario Maker have build-your-own levels. Sandbox games like Minecraft and Terraria have whole legions of fans with Youtube Channels and t-shirts and spin-off toys. 

Video games are massive - and games where you can design what happens are just as HUGE.

However, the actual DIY elements in most of these are small. You can set up a level and test and play it, but you can't really get "behind the scenes" and see what controls the characters or how real coding logic works. And for any parent of a kid who has said, "I want to make video games when I grow up", coding is king.

So here are our top three options for getting a real (and usually really-free) video game maker experience:

1) Sploder: 

Sploder is as close to Mario Maker for free as you can get.

In Platform Maker, you choose backgrounds, characters, sounds and effects. In this sense, you actually have more freedom than Super Mario Maker. Best of all (from our kid's point of view at least) they can make and share games with their friends - even if their friends don't have an account. This definitely beats $60+ Super Mario Maker in value.

Sploder can be a  classic "Platformer" game with many themes (knights, aliens, etc), but it all generally involves attacking baddies and advancing through whatever maze-like creation your kids come up with.

It also offers Physics Games and Adventure Games creator for those who want to avoid the cartoon violence. There really is something for everyone.

The website is ad-supported (that's what makes it free to use), so have that conversation with your kids about what is an actual link and what is an ad. Most of the ads are for video games and apps, so there is a chance confusion could happen. They have to pay the bills, so we're cool with the ads.

Note: There is a Sploder App as well, but our kids did not like it nearly as much as the website. The App costs money, the website is, as we mentioned, free. Go with the website!

Suggested Age Range: 7 and up

2) Learn to Mod: 

One of the big draws to Minecraft is the active Modding community (fans who remix, add to and otherwise enhance Minecraft). The game itself is full of endless possibilities, but when you add a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings Mod, it really becomes a rabbit hole of awesome.

But what if your kid wants to dig a bit deeper than just using someone else's ideas?

Learn to Mod is all about that. You get step-by-step tutorials on how to create modifications to Minecraft and your own server to practice on (and invite your friends to beta-test for you).

Server space doesn't come cheap, and Learn to Mod isn't free - it has a 29.99 annual subscription fee. But for this, you get a very professional interface with tutorial videos and all the stuff kids need to advance from programming in a visual interface to eventually using JavaScript.

And in case you didn't know, Java runs almost everything digital in our world on some level. Knowing how to code in Java is a valuable skill.

Suggested Age Range: 8+

Our kids spent some time playing on Learn to Mod and it could be something a kid as young as 7-8 could get into if they were really into the idea of making their own Mod. Ultimately, our kids were most content playing other people's Mods and Learn To Mod is likely best for a 10-12-year-old who really wants to get into Coding AND loves Minecraft.

3) Scratch:

We've saved the best for last. We stumbled upon Scratch about a month ago. Since then, our 9-year old son has gotten up a half-hour early for school so he can spend that time coding. He has become his school's expert on it and corrected me once when I suggested some game might use something like Scratch for its coding (he said it was most likely a Python based server).

And Scratch is made by MIT. Yes, you can tell the grandparents that your son or daughter is learning to program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Oh, and it's free.

Scratch teaches real coding principals (Like Logic tests, Loops and Arguments) in an entirely visual, drag-and-drop interface. You can make great little games, animations and other programs and share them in an active community. Other users can "remix" (save a copy and tweak) your games and give feedback on what changes you could add. It is everything great that the internet was supposed to be.

And the main character is a cat (who looks vaguely like Stampyso, you know, Cat Videos too.

Scratch is very open to interfacing with lots of other great tech-learning-tools too. It plays nicely with Raspberry Pi, PicoBoard and Lego WeDo and there are variations that can work with Mindstorms as well. The Educational Website part has resources for all age levels (really!) and it is hosted by Harvard. So yes, you kids really can get an Ivy League Education for free.

We love a couple of Scratch books:

Coding Games in Scratch 
~our first and favourite

Learn to Program with Scratch 
a well reviewed Scratch textbook aimed at slightly older ages but with online resources, you can download and use too

So, there you have it. If you have an eager gamer in your house, you can get them learning without complaining. And you can relieve the guilt of having them "just playing games" all the time. They aren't (just) Gaming - they're learning to Code!

Do you have any favourite Online learning tools your kids love?  Please - share in the comments - we always are on the hunt for more.


  1. I understand exactly what you mean. My high schooler is finally taking Digipen animation college course while finishing up his high school credits. I wasn't even aware that their were these types of programs online. Actually I should have known that their was these types of programs online for kids, in the sense that their is everything online. But thanks for bringing these to my attention and everyone elses.

    1. Digipen - that sounds so cool, Sharleen! It's amazing the stuff that kids can do so easily now - that didn't even exist when we were young. Kinda jealous sometimes. :) Thanks for your kind comment!

  2. Thanks for your suggestions. I could use those ones to help my cousin not to play silly games.

  3. Thanks for your information. I will try it!


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