It was the word three programmers used to describe watching children experience the world of code.
In one world, a vibrant blue and orange one-eyed robot makes its way through a maze on the floor, roaring like a lion and flashing bright lights.
In a second, a tiny, red-headed girl drawn by colored pencil, lost in her own imagination, solves problems and sequences with the help of her stuffed snow leopard.
And in a third world, fuzzy aliens who sparkle and wink travel across their bright green planet, saving the day with a swipe of a finger.
The United States ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, according to the Department of Education. Only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in these subjects and interested in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) career.
These days, however, no matter what a child wants to do when they grow up, computer science will help them. The first step in succeeding at that is giving them the opportunity to learn it, said Roxanne Emadi, grassroots strategist for nonprofit Code.org.. Right now, computer science is only offered in 10 percent of American high schools.
“One of the problems is there is no early exposure to [computer programming] and there is a stereotype of the geeky, nerdy male,” she said. “We want to bring the courses to the high school level, but offer K through 8 the tools to learn too.”
Children can learn the fundamentals of computer science and programming through simple computer tutorials, iPad games, and activities. And they want to. Take Code.org’s “Hour of Code” campaign: In its first month, 10 million students participated,, half of them female. Startups around the world are jumping on the bandwagon by using crowdfunding campaigns and internet communities to create innovative products that teach kids from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school the value of coding literacy.
Creative expression through technology
Whenever Linda Liukas attempted to work through computer programming challenges, she imagined herself as a young girl named Ruby. Ruby is brave and bossy. She’s independent and innovative. She uses words and numbers to follow sequences and solve problems. But it’s all part of daily life; technology is intertwined with creativity.
Liukas, who previously worked for Codeacademy, one of the most popular sites for coding tutorials, is the founder of RailsGirls, a global grassroots community that teaches girls the importance of technology and basic coding skills using Ruby on Rails programming language. There are now more than 160 chapters in cities from Tel Aviv to Rio de Janeiro. Not long ago, she had the idea for a children’s book, geared toward girls from four to seven years old. She started sketching, believing it would be side project as she freelanced in her hometown of Helsinki, Finland.
“And then Thursday happened,” Liukas said.
On January 23, she posted her campaign on Kickstarter with a goal of $10,000. Within three hours, it surpassed that, and Liukas herself isn’t even sure how. She’s had some press coverage and support from the RailsGirls community, but something about the message went viral. As of this moment, Hello Ruby has more than 5,000 backers who have pledged more than $230,000. There are 22 days left to go.
Hello Ruby, the storybook, comes with a workbook that explains the foundations of code such as loops, sequences, and variables, the software technology, and has plenty of room for doodling. If she reaches $250,000, Liukas plans to create a workbook for parents as well.
“Narratives are a powerful way of communicating concepts,” she said. “I want children to see how the tech industry works and the culture of programming while being read to in bed with their mother and father, before they even start typing or working.”
For Liukas, the computer programming world is compassionate, though we often assume is distant and harsh. She is surprised how many children–and adults–think computers, not people, write code. This is what Liukas wants Ruby to change: the misnomers of tech culture and education, which contribute to the low numbers of women in IT. The Department of Education reports that in 2011, only 18 percent of computer science degrees were held by women, and only 12 percent of CIOs were women.
More than anything, Liukas wants to show young girls that programming can be an expressive outlet just like anything else. “It’s a craft,” she said. “It’s building something from nothing.”
Similarly, little Ruby’s imagination will soon be built into a community for people all over the world.
The importance of introducing programming early
When he was six, Jon Mattingly frequently found himself grounded. His only source of entertainment was his parents’ old laptop. So he taught himself to code. He picked up the language quickly. He silently worked through the processes until he figured them out.
Mattingly and Grechen Huebner are the founders of Surfscore, an app development startup, and the creators of Kodable, the company’s first iPad app that teaches children the basics of programs through an alien adventure game. They started it in Louisville, Kentucky, but recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to immerse themselves in the startup tech community. Kodable is now part of Imagine K12, a program that helps education startups get money from investors.
Mattingly credits his success as a startup founder and programmer to learning the fundamentals at such an early age.
“The new process and learning to work through the problems is the hardest part,” Huebner said. “It’s not actually the syntax or the language.”
Research shows that early childhood is the best time to immerse a child in foreign language. One study showed that five and six-year-old bilingual children manifested a cognitive system that managed to hold more information at once and switch between them more easily. There is an obvious advantage of introducing any language at an early age–and that includes the language of computer programming. Computer programming careers are expected to rise 22 percent by 2020.
Kodable doesn’t use text at all; the entire program is a new language, made up of easily identifiable symbols. The game, which offers 90 levels, is aimed towards kindergarten to second grade students. Simple drag-and-drop motions on the iPad allow them to create sequences and loops. In the higher levels, kids can debug code that is written into the program already, and build out more complex worlds. Each package of levels–the first 45 are free and the rest are available for purchase–comes with a separate learning guide for parents.
“Overcoming the language barrier has been incredible,” Huebner said. “If you take away the necessity to read, kids can pick up on it so quickly.” To date, people in more than 100 countries have downloaded the app.
Kodable is used quite often in elementary schools because it fits with some of the Common Core State Standards for math, science, and technology. Huebner has received messages from teachers about collaboration between students and about how engaging the program is for them. She’s received many emails from parents who learn about programming with their child.
“Adults are so terrified of programming, it’s this scary thing,” Huebner said. “It’s funny how much adults underestimate kids, and giving them an opportunity to be challenged at such an early age proves how smart they are.”
The future of programming through play
Bo plays the xylophone. He has an expressive LED-lit eye that moves independently from his head and he explores with his many sensors, with which he can detect sounds and other toys. Yana is a storyteller; she can turn into a variety of characters with many personalities. They can work independently or together, making music, dancing, and lighting up
“One of the ways to reduce cognitive load on kids when programming is to give them concepts they are familiar with and they have fun with,” said Vikas Gupta, co-founder of Play-i, these toy robots made to teach children programming. “Kids and parents both are amazed and wowed–it’s this magical thing they can do and what we wanted them to do.”
Using an iPad or iPhone as a remote, children as young as five can program the robots. The most simple version allows for music and movement with finger swipes; the most complex uses Blockly and Scratch programming languages–or kids can write their own.
Gupta was surprised and humbled by the obvious need for such a toy, and it wasn’t just from techies in the Bay Area. Through the crowdfunding campaign on the Play-i website, the company had visits from 180 countries. They sold about 11,000 orders in the first month, raising about $1.5 million.
The first round of shipments to the backers will be late summer, but preorders for shipments before this Christmas are still available. Gupta hopes to have the robots in some schools and retail stores this year.
“We can do children a better service with the products we can put in their hands,” Gupta said. “We are creating a world of play for them that wasn’t possible until now.”