Coding is the New Literacy – Think Playgrounds, Not Playpens

There is no denying that coding is snowballing in importance across schools all around the world. Whether it’s Scratch, Programming Games or the Hour of Code, an understanding of software and the ability to code is fast becoming an essential skill for all 21st century learners.

At a recent TEDx event in Jackson Mississippi, Professor Marina Bers discussed her research into the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development. How does this research manifest and present itself in the real world? Well programming robots of course!

Using her own children’s experience and individual characters, Marina explains the key difference between how children interact, learn and develop in a playground environment vs a playpen, and how this relates to our technological world.

I use these two metaphors, the playground and the playpen, to help us think about the role of technologies in the life of young children. The technologies will change, today, tomorrow, as new products come to market. What will not change is the developmental needs and possibilities of young children and the playground and the playpen are still with us. What’s unique about the playground is it allows children to make things, to create, to become producers and not just consumers. And in the world of technology this kind of production happens by programming. By making. Coding is the new literacy.

So why coding? Why is the ability to code so important for young children and their ongoing development?

Why do we want 4 and 5 year olds to learn how to program? As I said before coding is the new literacy. The same way that we teach young children to learn how to read and write because we believe it’s important. It opens new ways to think about the world and new ways to express yourself. The same is true with coding. When we learn how to code, we are learning how to think sequentially, we are learning how to think about logic, we are learning how to solve problems where the order doesn’t work the way we want it. And most importantly we are also able to express ourselves to create anything we want.

We don’t teach young children to learn how to write so they can all become professional journalists or professional novelists. We teach them how to write, so they can create a love poem, a story, a business plan, a shopping list. The same is true for coding.

Marina explains, not only is it important that we engage students in the open and creative art of coding, but it’s essential that we begin their journey early. For their benefit as well as the impact on teaching costs and effort.

Research shows that if we don’t start young we’re really missing an opportunity. By fourth grade, stereotypes regarding people who are not good at math and science, technology and engineering, the fields of STEM, are already formed. Wow that’s early. Isn’t that ironic, that most our robotic programs and STEM programs start in middle school and high school. Why aren’t we starting early when children are curious and they want to learn about the world and they’re open to learn new things?

Research also shows, the economical benefits of programs starting in early childhood. Why wait until things don’t go right and we have to create remedial programs? That is a waste of resources. Let’s start early when children are eager and can learn.


Feature image Control icon created by Yi Chen for The Noun Project.

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