Over the past few years, computer science competitions have been growing in popularity. They aren’t a good fit for everyone, but some children thrive in competitive settings, where they’re given the chance to prove their skills, rise up leaderboards, maybe even receive a prize.
These competitions can also help with university applications. Computer science majors are hotly contested, and a child with proven competitive success can help to set themselves apart. Are you a world champion in coding? That’s very impressive. Did you work for NASA? Even better.
This is a list of our favorite computer science competitions for kids. From coding to robotics, to cyber security, there are plenty of options.
CodeChef is an online platform that hosts coding problems for kids. There are more than 3000 problems available on the website, divided into different difficulty ratings. At the highest levels, some of these problems are really quite tricky, which makes CodeChef suitable for more experienced coders too.
These coding problems aren’t competitive. At least, they’re not competitive, to begin with. Kids can work through them at their own pace, taking as much time as they need to get to grips with the coding concept at hand. With all those thousands of problems, they’re unlikely to run out of CodeChef activities any time soon.
And when your kid is starting to feel confident? When they’re beginning to work at a higher speed? That’s when the competition can begin.
Once or twice a week, usually on Wednesdays and weekends, CodeChef hosts competitive coding problems. They’re just like the other 3000 problems, but this time, they’re only available for a limited window of time. Participants need to complete these problems as quickly as possible, racing against other coders who are trying to do the same.
If your kid doesn’t win? It doesn’t matter. They can try again when the next puzzle comes out, usually in a couple of days. And as your kid gets better and quicker, it won’t be long until they find themselves climbing the CodeChef leaderboards, leaving other coders in their wake. It’s a very fun and rewarding system, which is why we put it first on the list.
This computer science competition is hosted on one of the leading platforms in the coding-for-kids industry: MIT’s Scratch. Anyone is welcome to enter, from the age of 7 all the way to adulthood, from wherever they live in the world. All they need is access to a computer, the internet, and Scratch — a coding platform that doesn’t cost a cent.
The competition is pretty simple. Your child needs to register in an age group, then submit a Scratch project which matches that group’s requirements. For example, the 13–14 age group needs to create a video game. That project will be scored by a team of judges, and winners selected based on the creativity and complexity of the code. There are certificates on offer, and other prizes too.
If the Scratch Olympiad doesn’t take your fancy, another option is the International Kids Coding Competition. It also uses the Scratch platform to host its competitions, with children asked to submit their projects in four different age categories. Submissions are judged by an international team of software developers, with the winners receiving an IKCC International Coding Diploma.
Neither of these contests is officially affiliated with Scratch, but they’re still well-respected competitions. If your child already has a knack for Scratch — or is looking to learn — either one is worth exploring. In both cases, participation is completely free, just like the Scratch coding platform.
Bebras Computing Challenge is another computer science competition that we really, really love. The main drawback is the fact that this competition is only open for a limited window: two weeks at the start of November. It’s something you need to add to your calendar and remember to revisit when November comes around.
Just like CodeChef, the Bebras challenge takes place online and is designed to help school-age children explore their talents in computer science. Every kid is given a 45-minute window and asked to complete as many tasks as possible — up to a total of 15. These tasks are fun and brightly colored, and the perfect way for children to test themselves in a safe, competitive space.
This really is a competition for everyone, with lots of different age groups:
- Kits (age 6–8)
- Castors (age 8–10)
- Benjamins (age 10–12)
- Cadets (age 12–14)
- Juniors (age 14–16)
- Seniors (age 16–18)
Every participant receives a certificate, and if your child does particularly well, scoring in the upper percentage of their age group, that certificate could be upgraded to a silver merit or a gold distinction.
For UK-based students, there’s also a chance to compete in the Oxford University Computing Challenge. Anyone who finishes in the top 10% of the Bebras Challenge will be invited to join this Oxford event at the start of the following year. This one is very competitive, and an exciting opportunity for anyone who makes the cut. The winning participant will receive a prize: a pi-top mini computer.
This is a fun and exciting robotics tournament for children all across the globe. They won’t be programming real robots; participants program virtual robots instead. It’s a really excellent online contest, which has already attracted hundreds of thousands of students.
Unlike the previous options on the list, CoderZ is a team game. Because of this, the contest helps to develop skills like communication and collaboration, as well as the more obvious skills of coding and computing. Just like Bebras, there are different levels:
- Novice (elementary students)
- Junior (middle school students)
- Pro (high school students)
At the pro level, students will perform some properly complex coding, designing a virtual robot with the power to compete in challenging online games. The competition starts with regional groups, with teams competing for the chance to qualify for a World Final. This final is streamed on Twitch, making participants feel like real e-sport athletes.
NASA isn’t hiring child astronauts (not yet), but they are on the lookout for genius coders in the high school and middle school age group. Unlike CodeChef and Bebras, this challenge isn’t about solving puzzles and coding problems. Instead, it’s about designing an app to help with future space travel.
This one is another team competition. There’s a minimum team size of 5 students, with no upper limit on numbers. It’s for US students only and needs the blessing of an educational institution. In other words, your child’s school will need to form a team, then contact NASA to register the team in the contest.
In 2022, the challenge asked students to create an app that helps to visualize the southern surface of the moon. This app could be used by lunar astronauts to navigate the landscape, like Google Maps in space. Next year’s challenge hasn’t been announced yet, but it will probably be something similar.
The winners get the chance to visit a NASA field center and present their app to engineers and scientists who work as part of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation team. If they like the idea, they might genuinely use it on future missions. It’s a really exciting opportunity — and quite possibly the most prestigious competition on this list.
NASA isn’t the only American government agency with a computer science competition. The American Air Force has one too: CyberPatriot’s National Cyber Defense Competition.
Again, this contest is limited to US students, and again, these students need to register their teams through an official educational institution. It’s a shame that neither this, nor NASA, is currently open to international students, but maybe that will change in the future. If you’re not based in the US, please feel free to skip this one, and continue down the list. The rest of the competitions are all fully international.
Participants in CyberPatriot’s National Cyber Defense Competition are given the challenge of finding and fixing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The teams who make the most secure system will progress to the next round, while other teams will be eliminated. It’s an interesting angle. None of these other computing competitions relate to cyber security.
Unlike the last two contests, the First LEGO League is fully international. According to their website, they’ve had more than 650,000 participants in 110 countries — a truly global contest.
These LEGO Leagues take place in person, and just like the NASA App Development Challenge, children will need to form a team before they arrive. This could be a group of friends in the local community, a group of classmates, or even members of a family. All skill levels are welcome, and an adult coach will help the team to work together and achieve some really amazing things, learning new skills like coding, development, and robotics.
The LEGO League is divided into different age groups:
- LEGO League Discover (age 4–6)
- LEGO League Explore (age 6–10)
- LEGO League Challenge (age 9–16)
The Discover age group learns the basics of computer science in a safe, accessible space. There’s no competitive element here, and the same is true of the Explore age group. Participants are free to learn the ropes at their own pace and get a feel for coding and robotics.
That changes when kids are old enough to join the LEGO League Challenge age group. Here, their team will create a robot, then use it to compete with other teams in a number of exciting games. It’s fun and exhilarating, and a great way to develop teamwork and confidence, not to mention all those useful computer science skills.
Technovation is a really amazing organization, which is working hard to tackle the gender imbalance in STEM-related fields. As the name suggests, this competition has an important rule: only girls are allowed to take part.
Participants compete to make mobile apps or AI projects which tackle a problem they care about: climate change, domestic violence, women’s equality, poverty, and other global issues. Let us repeat: Technovation is a really amazing organization, and the people involved are making a tangible difference to the world.
Most of their participants don’t have any prior tech experience but will learn a lot from the Technovation mentors. For some participants, this competition has the potential to change their future. Technovation find that 76% of participants go on to pursue a degree in STEM, compared to the international average of 21%. Those are some really impressive numbers.
Those were some of our favorite computer science competitions for kids. We know that a couple of them aren’t available to people who live outside the USA, but the vast majority are accessible to children all around the world.
These competitions are always on the lookout for talented participants. Just fire up an application page and see how far your child can go. Who knows? Maybe you’re looking at a future champion of the world.