I am not a coder. The closest I’ve come to the world of programming is a computer science class I took in college that killed my GPA (I got a C-minus, and that was a generous mark). It forever turned me off to the world of Boolean theorems and C++. For the rest of college, I kept myself happily occupied with Virginia Woolf and Chaucer, thank you very much.
The experience was disheartening not just because of the many miserable hours I spent staring at a tiny, blinking green square on a dead (or so it seemed to me) black screen, but because it cemented my impression of computers as intimidating—accessible only to engineering whizzes who composed conditional loops with the ease of a jazz musician lost in a riff.
Today, chances are my own kids will never have to live through my CS-1 nightmare. As the movement to promote programming as the new "digital literacy" has taken off, driven by everyone from Bill Gates to basketball star Chris Bosh, a number of companies have cropped up seeking to introduce coding to kids as young as 5. Among them are Hopscotch, an app that lets kids build their own computer games; Tynker, another app that teaches programming concepts; and MIT’s Scratch, a programming language created specifically for people too young to buy their own laptops.
The idea is that children, with their sparking synapses and sponge-like brains, will be able to easily digest all the stuff that I had such trouble comprehending in my early 20s. It’s the same thing that compels Type A parents to scour the city for Mandarin-speaking preschools and toddler violin lessons.
One of the latest entrants to the kid-coding category is Codarica, a Swedish startup that was founded last December by three young women—Sanna Nilsson, Lovisa Levin, and Rosalyn Knapp—who met at Hyper Island, a digital media school based in Stockholm. The company was recently accepted into the Disney Accelerator program and has relocated to L.A. for the 15-week week mentorship where they’ll work with Disney executives as well as creatives from Imagineering, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and other arms of the Disney empire. That Disney is getting in this game is a clear sign it will be part of our kids' lives.
Codarica aims to teach children between the ages of 5 and 10 HTML, the coding language of web pages, through e-books and, as of this fall, apps. In My First Website: Cody Coder’s Guide to HTML, children follow the story of Cody Coder, a wide-eyed kid who’s always being told to clean up his building blocks, or HTML tags, by his parents. And so off he goes to the World Wide Web, where he can make as much of a mess as he wants with his tags or, as the narrative goes, use them to build a house. He uses the image source tag to put windows and a door on his house; the paragraph tag to create a doormat that says "Welcome"; and so on. By the end, Cody—and the reader—will have learned the very basic language behind building a website.
My children are still too young to read about Cody Coder or his counterpart Holly Hacker, but as a parent my immediate reaction to the e-books is one of resistance. As I watch my 2-and-a-half-year-old son skillfully scroll through my iPad, choosing between episodes of Thomas & Friends and Pingu, and my 5-month-old daughter already casting mesmerized glances at my iPhone, I hesitate to give them another reason to be glued to a screen. Go outdoors! Jump in a pool! is my perhaps futile idea of how kids should spend their free time. It’s the same reason I silently sigh when I drive by the signs for tech camp at UCLA that are all over the streets near our house. Whatever happened to spending the summer roasting marshmallows?
Call me stodgy and outdated; I can take it. A more important question is whether a 5-year-old really needs to know how to code. Shouldn’t other skills, like critical thinking and logic, be reinforced before teaching a child the steps to building a website? Isn’t the Cody method a bit like teaching a child what a sentence should look like without explaining what the sentence means? As Chase Felker has written in Slate, "We don’t need everyone to code—we need everyone to think. And unfortunately, it is very easy to code without thinking."
At the same time, when I recall my own tortured introduction to computers, I can’t help but welcome the idea of having my kids learn about them from a place of enjoyment and pleasure. Why not associate Java with a cute character in a book as opposed to a droning professor? Why not have it "not be scary," as Levin says?
The point, after all, may not be to teach my children how to code, but to introduce them to a concept that has growing importance in our world.
As Levin says, "We should at least give them an understanding of how our digital world works. It’s so weird that we are all surrounded by code on a daily basis, it’s basically everywhere, but so few people know how it actually works.
"Children should have a chance to interact with it to see if they're taking to it, or if they're naturally talented in that way. If a child hasn't tried something, they don't know if they like it or not. It's like painting or acting."
Unlike other coding programs and games aimed at children, many of which focus on honing the reasoning processes and logic that underlie programming, Codarica’s goal is to teach actual code.
The company is also unique in that, like a movie or a TV show, it’s built around kid-friendly characters. Cody and Holly are misunderstood tykes who sport baseball caps and Converse. "Kids love interacting with other personalities," said Levin, Codarica’s CMO. "We’ve seen such great examples from characters like Dora. Children love to learn through characters."
Nilsson says it was important for the company to capture the imagination of young girls, a demo—it has been much lamented—that historically has stayed away from the tech field.
"When we did the research into programming for kids and what kinds of initiatives were out there, we saw that it was really un-entertaining, educational resources," Nilsson says. "Many were very geared toward boys, as well. Like an app where you could program robots to fight with each other. We kind of wanted to do something more gender-neutral, more fun."
Personal skepticism aside, the success of Coderica and other companies like it ultimately doesn’t depend on what a parent like me thinks. The real test is how engaging their products are to the people using them. And that bar is quite high, considering all of the digital content clamoring for children’s attention. My iPhone is already cluttered with "learning" apps featuring quacking ducks and cute puppies that are able to completely absorb my son when I need him to be absorbed (and even when I don’t).
Knapp admits to this challenge. She says that as the company has been developing its app, "We’ve been doing our homework. It hasn’t been easy to make code interactive and educational and geared toward a young demographic."
The company’s e-book demonstrates how hard it is to make learning fun. For all of the bright colors and eye-catching illustrations, text that has to convey dry ideas, such as "a href='I'm a link'"—is tough. The book does an admirable job of pulling it off, but I have to guess that my son would probably prefer an episode of Thomas. The forthcoming app will be more interactive, which will presumably up the entertainment ante. But there may still be a sizable gap between making coding "cool," as Nilsson says she hopes to do, and making it fun.
Disney should be able to help in this endeavor. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting to see what Codarica has to offer once my son is a little older. Then we’ll gauge his enthusiasm level, and whether he’s inspired to become his own version of Cody Coder.
If not, there’s always the pool.
[Images courtesy of Codarica]