Six-year-old Ruby has some amazing friends. There’s Tux, the opinionated penguin who talks a lot; the beautiful but aloof Snow Leopard; the messy green robot, Android; and she is even friends with Fox, who hides under the blanket when she tells scary bedtime stories. Each one of her friends is different and each one has something unique to offer Ruby on her first grand adventure.
The red-headed protagonist of author-illustrator—and former staffer at Codecademy, which offers free coding classes online—Linda Liukas’ forthcoming book, Hello Ruby, also has around 8,000 “backers” on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. And these backers have already pledged some $330,500 (around Rs.2.04 crore) to help the 27-year-old author from Helsinki, Finland, make ideas around computer programming accessible to children aged 4-7. Liukas’ book operates on at least two levels: The first is purely as a story about a young girl and her fuzzy, adorable friends going on an adventure. The second is where Liukas’ story also introduces children to the Internet and coding.
In a Skype interview, Liukas explains that the more technology-savvy parents will perhaps immediately pick up on the references to Tux, the mascot for the open source Linux operating system (OS); Snow Leopard, the OS for Mac computers by Apple, Inc.; Android, the Google OS for mobiles; and Fox, of course, is short for the Web browser Firefox. Liukas is also working on a parents’ guide explaining how the behaviour of each of the characters is a mirror to the technology products they stand in for.
The book leaves it up to the grown-ups to do the hard work, while the children are free to explore and imbibe what they like. After all, the children don’t have to know they are taking on—and solving—problems that would leave someone five times their age in a sweat. Like when Tux makes a mess in the kitchen, Ruby and the readers clean it up. They don’t have to know they’re using sequential thinking and breaking seemingly insurmountable problems into smaller ones that are quickly resolved—both building blocks of computer programming.
The debate on the appropriate age to teach children about technology is hardly new. There are a range of products and apps designed specifically for toddlers and young children today. But researchers like Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the US-headquartered MIT Media Lab, argue that in order to make them digital natives in the real sense, children as young as 5 should also be introduced to the world of coding. The idea here, as with Liukas’ book, is not so much to encourage children to become professional programmers later on in life as to equip them with digital tools. “They should be able to bend and break and rejoin code as they please to create and recreate new things,” says Liukas.
Sunaina Sood, proprietor and trainer at south Delhi-based RoboClub, agrees. “The point is not to teach them how to use current technologies or tools. By the time these children grow up, these technologies will probably be obsolete,” she explains. RoboClub introduces children aged 6-16 years to robotics using kits like LEGO® Mindstorms, and conducts sessions once a week.
On a February afternoon, the atmosphere in a RoboClub class for six- to eight-year-olds is more like a play group than a workshop. Eight children are working in groups of two or three to make an alligator. They squeal with delight every time they put a morsel of food in the alligator’s mouth—the in-built sensor causes the alligator to snap its mouth shut. In this 2-hour class, the children are learning about gears and sensors. Two trainers work with them, answering their many questions, and helping them think through their ideas.
At the end of the class, Sood hopes, the children will have had loads of fun, and may have learnt a little bit about creating something completely new. They will also have learnt about breaking big problems into small steps—a precursor to making flow charts—and the idea that computers need to be told what to do in a language that they can understand.
In September, the UK will launch a countrywide programme to make computer coding lessons mandatory for schoolchildren aged 5-16. Of course, the UK is not the first country to realize the importance of teaching young children to code. Banking on the ability of children as young as first-grade students to understand programming concepts, Estonia introduced a programme in 2012 that made coding lessons compulsory for children starting age 7.
When California-based entrepreneur Vikas Gupta first heard about the plan to introduce all first-graders in Estonia to coding, he was incredulous. “I could not imagine myself programming in first grade,” says Gupta in an email interview. “My first step was to convince myself that a first grader can really program, and the impact it can have if the right platform was available to them.”
He did some research, and along with co-founders Mikal Greaves and Saurabh Gupta, launched Play-i. Last year, Play-i rolled out the blue-and-orange robots Bo and Yana, for children in the 5-10 age group. Bo and Yana are controlled using visual programming languages like Blockly and Scratch, and use musical and narrative cues to help even pre-readers (children who can’t yet read) to code. To send the robots skidding across the floor or to get them to play a musical instrument, children are encouraged to give them a concise set of commands—the essence of all computer programming, really. Bo and Yana can be pre-ordered at www.play-i.com (they also ship to India).
Parents are now starting to buy into the idea of introducing young children to concepts around programming without forcing them to learn these by heart or even fully understand them immediately. Andrey Ostrovsky, a paediatrician at the Boston Children’s Hospital, US, says he co-authored his forthcoming book ABCs of the Web for his two-year-old son. Ostrovsky says he has used alliteration and bright colours that a two-year-old can appreciate, but he “definitely won’t be disappointed” if his son, Greg, retains nothing about technology from his book. For now he’s thrilled that Greg knows to go “somewhere in the middle of the book” to find the letter “G”