I am barely tech-literate. I can operate my Mac and my iPhone, largely because those are designed to be accessible to the non-tech-savvy, but if anything unexpected happens, I have to call for help. I never learned any IT skills in school. I took one programming class in college, and it was so advanced that I gave up forever.
But you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that teaching kids and young people to code is the newest push in education. So while it may be too late for me to learn how to code, it’s not too late for my kids (or the 5-year-old, anyway—the 2-year-old is still working on learning to use the toilet).
It surprised me to learn that coding for kindergartners is indeed a thing; my boys won’t have to wait until high school or college to learn basic computer programming. As Anya Kamenetz writes for NPR, a new wave of computer literacy classes, programs and games is now aimed at children as young as 5.
codeSpark, a company founded by a dad with a young daughter, offers software called The Foos, which claims to teach basic programming skills to the kindergarten set. Coding can be taught to little kids by focusing on the basic skills that are the building blocks of programming, like, as Kamenetz writes, “sequencing, pattern recognition and if/then conditional logic.” Coding educators reason that if kids are getting these basic skills early on, at the same time they’re learning to read and do simple arithmetic, they have the foundational skills for “computer literacy” down the road.
Grant Hosford, the founder of codeSpark, points out that we give students roughly 20 years to become fully math and reading literate: We start with games and songs in kindergarten and gradually make the lessons more complex—and that this is the key to becoming fully computer literate as well. Kamenetz writes, “[T]his early introduction is key to broadening participation in STEM disciplines. ‘If we were teaching coding like reading and math, we would break it down into bite-size chunks, make it more fun with songs and stories, and give students two decades to reach mastery,’ Hosford says. ‘With coding we throw you in the deep end in high school or college and are surprised when most kids drown.'”
Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor of child and human development and of computer science at Tufts University, researches children and technology and is a co-developer of the app ScratchJr. Her studies have shown that programming instruction for small kids improves their executive function and sequencing skills—they are better able to break complex tasks into steps after the coding class or games. And when their sequencing skills get better, their reading comprehension skills also improve. It seems that learning to code helps kids become more organized thinkers, no matter what the discipline.
But, what about excessive screen time? I already worry that my 5-year-old spends too much time watching Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Do I really want to encourage him to be spending more time with the computer? Dr. Bers acknowledges that children do need to play with physical, tangible objects, and so she has developed a robot that can be programmed by physically moving blocks around. I myself have just ordered a physical board game called Robot Turtles that aims to teach children the basics of programming without a screen.
I have no idea if programming is going to become as necessary as the three Rs for our kids’ generation, but I’ll give it a shot as long as he’s interested. Because when I’d old, I’m going to need to call him for computer help.