Last weekend, I spent an hour or so helping my twin daughters learn to read, write and do simple sums. Nothing unusual there - they’re four years old, have just started school, and are little human sponges right now, soaking up any wisdom I can give them.
And then I taught them how to code. Or rather, I showed them how to make a cartoon cat dance across a screen and meow by dragging instructions into a certain order. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Now four might sound a little young to prime for a life of hackathons and pizza binges, especially given their career ambitions right now amount to being a ballerina and a princess. But it’s actually in line with the government’s own strategy, which has seen the old information technology curriculum debugged and replaced by a new computing programme that includes coding lessons for kids as young as five.
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It doesn't have to be hard
Ali Blackwell is Head of Innovation at Decoded and one of the brains behind the Playto.io platform that aims to make it easy for anyone to code. And he’s in no doubt about the value of the new strategy.
“Technology is changing the world in every conceivable way,” he says. “To create and harness technology, some people need to be able to write software. And at a universal level, the way programmers solve problems – sometimes called Computational Thinking – is a vital skill in all walks of life, whether we're writing code ourselves or not.
“The only surprise is that it's taken them so long. Coding not being in school before was like not teaching people to read for 20 years after the printing press was invented – madness!”
Coding for big kids too
Blackwell’s own Playto.io platform is a little more complex than Scratch, but it’s ideal for older children, with superbly clear tutorials that’ll take them through everything from their first dabblings with html to developing their own quiz app from scratch.
But don’t just leave the kids to it. If, like me, you’re of an age when IT lessons at school consisted of little more than 30 teenagers gathered around two computers running Minesweeper, chances are you’ve never learnt to code. Well, still not knowing how to code while living in the year 2014 is like being one of those Brits who moves to the Costa Del Sol and refuses to learn Spanish. And nobody wants to be one of them.
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Even if you do think you’re too much of an old dog to learn any new tricks, you’ve got no excuse not to help prepare your children for life in a computer-dominated world. The likes of Scratch and Playto.io are just two of many, many resources out there, many of them free. Blackwell advises enrolling them (or yourself) in a Code Club or Coder Dojo, and checking out Code.org for a list of online resources for all ages.
Whatever you do, your kids are probably going to be more familiar with coding than you are. And that can only be a good thing. Most of them won’t end up being old-school computer programmers, but coding will be a skill that everyone – writer, designer, doctor, lawyer, plumber, builder, candlestick maker – will use at some level.