Children Should Create Before They Code

Raise your hand if you've received at least one email advertising a coding camp for your child. Keep it up if you have considered it. I have. My children enjoy programming and I see it as an important and empowering skill to have - to be creators, not just consumers of technology. Still, my children will not be going to coding camp this summer.

I received three emails advertising coding camps on one day alone. One stated, "Your child may have invented an app by now." It seemed to suggest that my boys could be behind for having not created an app - and I might be to blame for having not equipped them with the skills. It went on to state that the course provided could teach children to create apps in 30 minutes.

Something about this ad troubled me. No more so, though, than the summer camp sign I passed promising "cutting edge" summer camps. In principle, I should have no problem with this. I am an advocate for developing a digitally empowered youth. I believe that children should understand programming and coding, that this is a literacy like any other and growing exponentially in value.

But this does not belong in a vacuum. Building an app using a simple program can be quick, easy, and fun. Yet, it won't do much to further the likelihood of a child becoming the next Nick D'Aloisio. An app is not engaging or useful because it has been developed; it is engaging or useful because it has been created to solve a problem, to entertain, or to meet the needs of an end user.

Something is missing from this ad. Children must play before they can invent games. They must build with sticks outside or blocks inside before building in a visual programming language. They need to understand complex problems before they can offer solutions. They need to learn to collaborate with others before they can succeed on their own. As our understanding of coding or programming as a literacy grows, so too will the pedagogies that surround it.

Suggestions such as those offered by Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor, Kate Brennan, present a host of meaningful ways to engage children in computer science. For those who love computer science, there are many online communities and free courses in which to participate.

Teaching coding to young children in isolation or proposing that 30 minutes can turn any child into an app developer is similar to teaching phonics without comprehension or saying that a child who can sound out a word is literate. Learning to program is a rich and valuable experience for children when it is embedded in the context of creating something, tinkering, or playing with friends. The impact of learning in context is joy and engagement; testing and manipulating; asking what happens if I change this.

My children are 7 and 9. They enjoy programming. One learned Scratch through a school club. The other learned from his brother. I could certainly teach them Python, or at least try. Still, I'd rather see them play outside, take turns playing Minecraft on a friend's sofa, or plan a lemonade sale.

That isn't to say that they won't program this summer. They are already planning to teach their age seventy (something) aunt how to build and program a robot and they will attend a few workshops at a local maker space. They made Father's Day cards using Scratch. These are all high-context ways to engage in programming. In fact, many summer programs do offer coding skills in combination with entrepreneurial skills, problem solving, teamwork and more. Parents need to ask questions and consider balance when choosing a summer program with their children.

For those of us taking a pass on coding camp, below are a few ways to provide opportunities for our children to create, to develop key 21st century competencies in the process, and maybe even code a bit along the way.

  • Visit a maker space with family programs.
  • Take the 90 Minute Stanford Crash Course on Design Thinking
  • Join Maker Camp, a free online camp, complete with google hangouts.
  • Set up a pop-up makerspace at home. Fill a room or a box with low resolution prototyping materials and some prompts to get children thinking and making. Check out the Cooper Hewitt Museum's Process Lab for ideas.
  • Take Tinkering Fundamentals, a free hands-on course offered by the Exploratorium on Coursera.
  • Swap skills with another parent and take turns hosting a make-a-thon one afternoon per week. This could be anything from pickling to robotics to soldering.
  • Host a neighborhood or family game design competition on Scratch or Tynker.
  • Find out what's happening in the local public library - the original innovation studio.