Product: A clever combination of puzzle learning and creativity platform, codeSpark Academy is a subscription-based app aimed at teaching kids ages 4-9 coding skills. While the iOS and Android apps are free, the family subscription is $7.99/month and allows for accounts for three kids. Educators and non-profits may sign up for a free account with additional features that allow them to manage accounts for all of their students.
Glows: The colorful, silly characters will appeal to kids and an emphasis on gender equity means that there are just as many characters that skew female (most are somewhat gender neutral) as male. The combination of skill-building puzzles and creative exploration is inviting for a wide range of kids, while also adding to the ongoing value. No reading is required, making this appropriate for kids who are not yet reading, as well as those for whom English is not a primary language.
Grows: Direction and help is minimal; kids who get stuck on a puzzle will have to just keep trying to figure it out without a hint. Without some sort of general overview of what is available, some kids may feel lost and overwhelmed. The earn-coins-to-unlock-items approach is limiting for creative users early on, especially since the initial collection of characters and props is quite small. The $7.99/month subscription fee will be cost-prohibitive for many families, and the limit of three child accounts will be problematic as well.
Bottom Line: codeSpark Academy has a lot of content with potential appeal for a lot of different kids. Despite the lack of reading skills required, this may be a stretch for most 4-year-olds and many young kids will probably need adult support as they begin exploring the app. Older kids, however, will enjoy tackling the puzzles (with occasional help if they get stuck) and then putting their learning into action by making their own games and animated stories.
The codeSpark Academy Philosophy
The mission behind codeSpark Academy is “to make computer science education accessible to kids everywhere.” They do this through 3 primary approaches: making the experience free for schools, requiring no reading, and attempting to close the gender gap by making content and characters that are appealing to girls. In addition, they a number of core values including ingenuity, confidence, wonder, experimentation, and setting a high bar for kids. Their core values are clearly displayed in their content design.
Getting Started with codeSpark Academy
Parents who are beginning a subscription with codeSpark Academy will enter an email and answer a few questions about one of their children, including their age, gender, and coding experience. They must then enter payment information. There is a 7-day free trial available for new users, but payment information (credit card or PayPal) is required either way. Once this is set up, parents can download the app and help their kids set up accounts.
Kids begin by choosing an avatar from a cast of quirky characters that include colorful kids, animals, and other creatures. They then will need to create a username from a canned combo of words. They might end up as “Izzy Jellybell” or “Cooper Pumpkinpickles.” New users will find some tutorial videos and levels to help them get started, but there is no overview of the experience as a whole. They will just need to explore. Parents of competitive/mischievous kids should know that there is no password or PIN to move between kid profiles.
Much like other coding apps for kids, codeSpark Academy uses puzzles and games to help kids learn about coding logic without teaching actual stand-alone code.
The puzzles section is a series of increasingly difficult coding challenges in several categories: Sequencing, Loops, Advanced Sequencing, Events, and Conditionals. Kids are faced with a challenge (i.e., get the character from point A to point B), given a few “commands,” and then set free to use the commands to meet the goal. Each level is worth three stars and kids earn those by meeting the goal as well as some other parameters which aren’t always spelled out. They can replay the levels as many times as necessary to earn all three stars, but there is no help or prompting if they start to struggle. There is also no penalty for an inelegant solution, although sometimes kids may lose stars for extra commands. It’s hit or miss. After completing a certain number of levels, kids also earn trophies, which unlock new items in the shop, as well as new categories.
The “Explore” area takes kids into more specific coding and logic skills, including Boolean Logic, Events, Stacks and Queues, and Variables and Inequalities. Most of these are also puzzle-based, requiring skills such as sorting and comparing, but the Pet Pals activity is more free-form play. In this game, kids care for pets by feeding, petting, playing with, and cleaning up after them. As they progress, they can program assistants to help with things like feeding and cleaning up “poo” (of which there is a lot). Kids unlock more and more animals over time.
Kids who have mastered the puzzles and explorations, or those who are needing a creative outlet, have two options. They can create their own games using similar coding tools to those they used in the puzzles section. Or, they can create interactive/animated stories. This is where all of those stars they collected come in handy. The stars are the currency for the in-app store, where kids can buy backdrops, characters, props, actions, and logic pieces for their creations. Kids can upload their games to a community site where they can also browse, play, and remix other kids’ games. Stories don’t have a share tool, but kids can certainly show them off to friends and family.
The Whole Package
CodeSpark Academy does have some challenges, the biggest of which is the lack of help within the app. It’s simply not clear how to do some things or what many of the buttons do. Parents should expect to provide support (as requested) early on and throughout when kids get really stuck. The subscription fee is also a significant barrier for some. On the other hand, it manages something that a lot of coding apps for kids fail to do: it teaches kids the logic they need to code, but then also provides two separate creative platforms so kids understand that the ability to code is a tool that allows them to create things. That final piece is an essential one. Sure, kids aren’t going to leave codeSpark Academy with the ability to code their own stand-alone apps and software. But they may feel empowered to learn a coding language so that they can tackle their own real-world problems or express their creativity.