Coding for children made the news when US Barack Obama announced a new Computer Science for All initiative on Jan 30, 2016. It aims to develop digital skills in American President kids from kindergarten up.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg applauded the move in a post on the same day, and also shared that he learnt coding while tinkering with his dentist-father’s office computer (see screenshot below).
But what is coding all about, and why is it so important for your kids? We asked the experts for answers.
- Gerald Ng is a former IT professional and now teacher at St Joseph’s Institution Junior, Singapore.
- Miles Berry is principal lecturer (Computing Education), University of Roehampton, the UK.
- Kevon Cheung is expansion manager for First Code Academy, an enrichment school based in Hong Kong and Singapore.
- Juliana Ung is founder and trainer at The Kid Coders, as well as an IT professional working with touch technology, multimedia computing and enterprise systems.
WHAT’S CODING ALL ABOUT?
Miles: In programming computers, first, think about the problem and decide how you’re going to go about solving it. Then write a set of instructions – that’s the “code” – in a particular programming language that the computer can follow to carry out your solution.
BUT WHY SHOULD CHILDREN IN PARTICULAR TAKE IT UP?
Gerald: (In Singapore,) Smart Nation plans are focused on having capabilities to sense and detect different physical conditions, like the weather or traffic jams. Teaching coding will allow them to create software that can harness these capabilities, as it is software that drives the hardware.
Miles: There are many jobs and (even) academic fields in which coding is useful. These days, it’s hard to study physics, engineering or economics, for example, without having to do some programming.
In the UK, we’ve seen computing as an essential part of a rounded, liberal education for the third millennium for all pupils – not simply because it provides useful skills in coding, but because it seems to be the best way to develop pupils’ grasp of the concepts of computational thinking, such as logic, algorithms, decomposition, generalisation and abstraction.
Many schools are also offering coding clubs for pupils who want to go further, and
I suspect the software engineers of the future may well be those who’ve been interested enough in coding to take part in such activities.
WHAT GOES ON IN CODING CLASSES FOR KIDS?
Juliana: Classes catered to working adults are very targeted, as they want to achieve specific tasks, like being able to edit and maintain their own websites or blog shops.
Kids have varied interests. This lets educators like me teach using varied tools and approaches. (We also take) the opportunity to expose children to engineering and computer science flavours.
Kevon: Our coding class consists of multiple sessions. Each session starts with computer programming concepts and moves onto building apps that reinforce those theories. At the end of each class, students will work on their final projects. We encourage them to use creativity to solve problems.
Gerald: In SJI Junior, coding lessons are conducted as a modular programme, during curriculum time. The school started piloting Scratch lessons for three classes of P4 students last year. Lessons are conducted by teachers who have undergone training provided by the Ministry of Education.
At the end of the session, students are to create a game or a product using Scratch.
WHEN CAN CHILDREN START CODING?
Juliana: It is never too early to introduce problem solving aspects to young kids. There are board games and other toys designed to resemble coding languages, so preschoolers need not be unnecessarily exposed to lengthy screen time. I would say that six to eight years old is a better age range to start them on coding on the computer.
Miles: (Pupils as young as five) can typically start by programming very simple robots using forward/backward/left/ right commands, before moving on to similar, simple programming languages made up of blocks or buttons on screen. We’ve left more complex, text-based programming for secondary education from the age of 11.
WHAT IF MY KID HATES MATHS?
Miles: While there’s some overlap between mathematical reasoning and computational thinking, there are plenty of uses for programming which don’t draw directly on maths. We’ve seen some lovely projects linked to storytelling, music composition and art. (In fact,) we’re starting to see that learning to code seems to help pupils with maths, although it’s early days for us.
Gerald: Having logical thinking, problem solving and perseverance is more critical because statements in programming use more than just the four basic mathematical operations.
Juliana: You don’t need to be good at maths to code. However, you can code interesting things with maths knowledge. For example, computer graphics programming requires linear algebra and calculus, while artificial intelligence makes use of statistics and probability.
HOW EASY IS IT TO CREATE SOMETHING?
Juliana: In my class, children create mostly games and animations. A simple quiz can be done in 15 minutes, but not all simple projects are easy.
Once, I asked my students to solve a simple problem at home. The next day, they reported that it took them two to three hours to think of the solution, consisting of only a few lines of code. All of them agreed that it felt good to have thought of the solutions on their own.
Kevon: Our students Brian and Brandon created the Outfitter, an app that allows users to share their fashion sense with the virtual world. Jon, another student, developed an app called Save the Stickman for kids to play. These apps took around two weeks to complete, from ideation, to development, and to debugging and testing.
IS CODING FUN AND RELEVANT FOR GIRLS, TOO?
Kevon: If we’re able to show the girls someone they can look up to, like Marissa Mayer, who is the president and CEO of Yahoo!, their interest tends to increase. Getting early exposure to coding helps girls to understand what it’s all about.
Coding is often thought of as a boys’ interest; the truth is, girls just never get a chance to learn about the topic early on.
Related: Science classes for kids are hot