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 A robot made using Lego’s Mindstorms kit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
 A robot made using Lego’s Mindstorms kit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The learning code

Computer programming teaches children to think creatively, and is now being taught in schools

At what age should your children learn computer programming? I’m not talking about learning to use a computer but programming one.

Computer programming—also called coding—is how you tell a computer what you want it to do for you. It’s a specialized area of study and has got geekiness attached to it. I know quite a few children in their 20s, all very bright, but none of them has a clue about coding. They find it intimidating.

Mitchel Resnick is the director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. If you or your children have ever played with Lego, you might remember the programmable brick used in the Mindstorms robotics kit. The brick was invented by this MIT group. Resnick said in a TED talk that coding is “a gateway to broader learning" and “learning to code means learning how to think creatively".

His argument is that we should not aim to create a generation of programmers but instead encourage children to think. The group also designed the hugely popular child-friendly visual programming language called Scratch.

Many countries have now begun to treat coding as a basic skill in high schools—as basic as learning the three (reading, writing and arithmetic). In Estonia, a tiny country off one corner of Russia, children as young as 6 are taught computer programming in school.

The British government has mandated that from September 2014, children in schools must be taught computer coding from the age of 5. It really doesn’t matter whether the aim of these countries is to create the next generation of programmers; what is important is it will teach children in junior school to think creatively.

The British education department has joined hands with the US-based Codecademy, an online start-up where anyone can go and learn programming for free. Last year, outgoing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said he had made a New Year’s resolution to learn to code from Codecademy.

There are many other platforms where one can learn coding—the Khan Academy, Udacity, and Code School. Then there are MIT’s Scratch and Blockly (developed by Google) that are aimed towards very young children. If your child has an iPad, there’s an interesting coding app called Hopscotch.

Now Play-i, a US-based start-up, has developed a toy called Bo and Yana that encourages children from the age of 5 to develop coding skills. It’s a pair of cute-looking robots that can be programmed to perform some actions and interact with each other.

The company’s promo says “as you play together, Bo learns new skills and becomes a more capable robot... Yana is a storyteller. Yana is clever, imaginative and full of dreams. Yana can surprise and entertain you by bringing characters to life as you play".

The robots are controlled by a tablet. Once a child gets the feel of the toy, and understands how to give it a command and make the pair do a few things, he or she can move up to the next level and use Scratch and Blockly languages to develop complex programs for the two robots.

Two of the four co-founders of Play-i are of Indian origin: former Amazon and Google executive, Vikas Gupta, and the former head of Apple’s iPod software team, Saurabh Gupta. “I have a daughter aged 2 and I wanted to do something for children," Vikas told BBC.

The company plans to launch its toy in the summer of 2014 and is taking pre-orders for Bo and Yana for $198, around 12,000 (to start with, they are not shipping to India).

It’s not an inexpensive toy. But if it inspires children to learn, teaches them how to think, is good for an age span of seven years, and is also fun to play with, it’s well worth the money.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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