It’s a Sunday morning at East Dulwich Picturehouse in South London, and a group of three- and four-year-old children is playing in a backroom. But not with cars or dolls. Instead, they are learning the basics of coding by creating animations on tablets.
One of the children, Rocco, turned four a week ago and has been attending classes for six months. During this time, he has created an animation of a giraffe and a zebra in a bedroom. “I want the giraffe to chase the zebra so that he can fight him,” he says. His mother chimes in: “Don’t you mean play with him?” Rocco smiles and shakes his head. That’s a no.
Rocco created this animation using ScratchJr, an introductory programming language designed jointly by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT and DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. ScratchJr offers a menu of coded blocks that click together like puzzle pieces. It’s a simplified version of Scratch, which is already widely taught in UK primary schools – part of the national curriculum for computing classes from Key Stage 1, when children are five and six years old.
Some nurseries aim to give pre-schoolers a head start by introducing them to block-based coding. At Streatham & Clapham Prep in South London, an all-girls school, 35 girls under five are using iPads to code nursery rhymes into animations. One of the nursery rhymes is ‘One, two, three, four, five/Once I caught a fish alive’. For this animation, the girls choose a fish and a sea background from the ScratchJr picture library. They then move their chosen blocks from the various menus in ScratchJr into the coding box to make the fish move; next, they record themselves singing the nursery rhyme and add it to the animation sequence.
“The girls have grasped it faster than the adults,” says Ruth Lockyer, head of early years at the nursery. “They understand that the code must go from left to right, how to slot in a new block, structure their thinking and problem solve if they slot in the wrong block.” After the lesson, the children make their own versions – for example, by drawing fish on the iPad. That, she says, is their favourite part.
The girls are following a curriculum developed by MAMA.codes, a company founded by Liane Katz. Her programme is now used at nine nursery and primary schools, as well as at drop-off classes for three- to eight-year-olds in London, Hertfordshire and Northern Ireland.
Katz believes that coding can be taught to children the same way they learn to read. “Kids under eight are hardwired to learn language,” she says. Take the word ‘sat’. At school, children are given a series of books devoted to the sound ‘at’. Once they recognise that sound, they can apply it in a variety of contexts and use it to express what they want to say. Katz says that with ScratchJr’s puzzle-like icon blocks, they can apply the same principle to tasks such as coding a nursery rhyme. “After being exposed to that sequence three or four times, we test the children to see if they can do it independently,” she says.We asked a bunch of ten year olds how they use technology
We asked a bunch of ten year olds how they use technology
Katz started developing this method in 2015, when she realised that her six-year-old daughter didn’t have any coding classes at school. She did some research and came across ScratchJr. Katz started inviting friends to her house for ‘parent hacks’ to code silly jokes, and the friends could then teach their own children. “Parents are very aware that these are the skills of the future and they want to future-proof their children,” she says.
Beth Hart agrees. Her five-year-old twin boys, Ollie and Eddie, have been attending coding classes for a year. As a supply chain director in the food industry, she sees how it’s become an increasingly essential tool. “Even if coding is not something they choose to study further, at least they’ve had a positive introduction and understand the value of it,” she says. Likewise, Joanna Hickman, mother to three-year-old Gus, has always been interested in coding and feels her generation doesn’t know enough about it, which is why she enrolled her son in the classes.
But Benedict Gaster, an associate professor in physical computing at the University of the West of England, wonders whether three- and four-year-olds really need to be sitting in front of a screen. “I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t use devices. It just shouldn’t be the only means of teaching,” he says. His own four children like to play Robot Turtles, he says – a maze-like board game which introduces the fundamentals of computer programming with instruction cards that move the turtle across the board to win a jewel. “I would argue that children playing with building blocks is teaching problem solving skills,” he says.
There are other physical games meant to introduce pre-schoolers to the basics of computer programming. Cubetto, for instance, is a little wooden cubical robot that moves on a board when a child puts special programming blocks into a connected base. The board is a map with different themes – space, ocean, city – and an accompanying book tells a story. Then there is KIBO, a robotic kit that works with wooden blocks, used to create a sequence of instructions. The child can then scan the blocks with a small robot to tell it what to do, and the robot starts to move. These toys don’t have screens, and are part of STEAM, an educational approach that incorporates the arts into the STEM model that includes science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Katz knows that parents and teachers have valid concerns about children overusing screens. She believes there should be a balance, but thinks devices are important for creativity and learning. “Kids need to be creative thinkers, innovators, have an armoury of skills and mastery of tech to survive in future, technology-driven workplace. So what better skill to teach them than coding? I feel like it’s a 21 century superpower.”