At school with the 4-year-old computer programmers
Children as young as 4 can program computers thanks to a new graphics-based coding language
Surely it can't be that easy
Children as young as 4 can program computers, thanks to a new graphics-based coding language
LORNA is 4, going on 5. I've never met her before, but her eyes light up when she sees me. She rushes over, blonde curls bouncing. "I'm going to sit on you!" she declares. I demur, so she climbs into the chair next to me. "I weigh forty pounds!" she exclaims.
I hand her the iPad I'm carrying and the silliness melts away in an instant. A teacher helps her load up an app, gives her a quick tutorial and she's off, pulling at icons, stringing instructions together, building animations. Lorna is on her third day of learning to program a computer.
Lorna and her classmates, who range in age from 4 to 7, are taking part in a pilot study here at
Tools like Scratch aim to address what their developers see as a lack of computer programming instruction in schools today. The general thinking is that children are growing up surrounded by powerful machines they do not understand and teaching needs to be overhauled to prepare today's youth for a future living and working closely with computers.
Unlike typical programming languages, which require users to type in complicated text commands, Scratch uses coloured blocks that are strung together to create lines of code. ScratchJr is similar, only the commands are even simpler. After assembling a rudimentary program, the child clicks a green flag at the beginning of the list of commands to run it.
It may sound very simple, says
Concepts become more complex as the child progresses. On just their third day with ScratchJr, the youngsters are being introduced to the idea of programming tasks in parallel – in this case, making a snake wriggle across a grassy meadow while a bird glides down from the air. This involves two separate strings of commands, one governing the bird and the other the snake, and they must be made to work simultaneously.
Once the students have completed their task, they get the opportunity to experiment with what they've learned. William, aged 6, adds a loop to his program, so the snake slithers through the grass over and over again. Then he adds a command so the bird only glides down after the snake has reached most of the way across the screen. In computer science terms, William is showing that he understands control flow – a concept every programmer must master.
Being able to think like this can help children with more than just computing, Bers says. Maths, science, even learning to write, all require children to be able to organise their thoughts into the best order.
Early exposure to programming seems to have helped some of the world's top coders. Earlier this year,
"We didn't see an effect before 3rd grade, but certainly earlier is good," Fraser says.
The picture in the US is a little less rosy. Three-quarters of secondary schools there offer introductory computer science courses, but less than a quarter make them compulsory. The federal government does not consider computer science a core subject and allocates it little funding. "In the US, most computer science classes won't start until grade 10 [ages 15 to 16], if you're lucky," says Fraser.
A bill introduced to the
Back in the classroom, William takes me through one of his creations – a program in which a bird flies out of a tree and greets a friendly cat. But the bird doesn't fly on cue. "What?!" he exclaims, frowning. "Let me check the bird's program." He tweaks a few icons and runs it again. All fixed. I ask him whether he might like to be a programmer some day. "Probably," he says. "It's edging out 'scientist' right now." n
With their brackets, semicolons and other odd-looking syntax, text-based programming languages can seem impenetrable. To make things easier,
Most Popular Stories
- NSA Defends Global Cellphone Tracking Legality
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Top Websites for U.S. Hispanics
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Saab Gets Back into the Game; U.S. Auto Sales Soar
- Apple Activates Customer-Tracking iBeacon
- Dell Offers Undisclosed Number of Employee Buyouts
- 2013 Tech Gift Guide: iPad Mini Still Hot; Chromecast a Great Low-Cost Option
- Authorities Close to Deal with JPMorgan Chase over Madoff Response
- A Biography of Jonathan Ive, Apple's Creative Chief