Marian Muscat Azzopardi – Grandmother who enjoys playing and exploring new subjects with young children. Her work and academic experience are not related to information technology
Let’s start with a very basic explanation of coding or programming – it’s as simple as writing sets of step-by-step instructions to be carried out by computers in order to perform tasks.
Completed sets of instructions are referred to as programs, and they are written in a language that a computer can understand. These languages function in a similar way to the languages we speak every day – but each language uses specified words for its own precise way of setting out instructions.
There are many different computer languages that have been designed for different purposes. Some of these languages have been designed for children.
Just like you do not need to be an engineer to build a bridge with a children’s building blocks kit, you do not need to be a software engineer to learn how to use a children’s programming language.
You can also use children’s building blocks and some extras that come with some children’s construction kits to make little robots or machines. These toy constructions can then be programmed and controlled remotely by snapping together some virtual blocks of code on a tablet or computer.
So while you may think that you do not have the background or the aptitude required to be actively involved in a family coding activity, you’re probably just not aware of how accessible certain systems are
The next time you are exploring ideas for a few hours of family indoor fun, why not consider this area of activity? Coding is no longer a mysterious skill that only professionals can practice.
It is within our reach to help our children and grandchildren do more than just consume and use technology: they can create it. Rather than only passively absorbing content, if they learn how to code, they can enjoy making their own digital masterworks and games.
Coding is an important skill to learn because it unleashes creativity and promotes logical thinking and problem-solving skills. These skills involve the breaking down of tasks and problems into well-defined and precise parts that are to be tackled step by step. It also involves developing the patience and concentration to find and fix problems.
These problem-solving skills do not only apply to the area of computer science. Apart from the sciences and engineering, they extend to different areas like medicine, law, business, the arts, logic, music and storytelling. These are valuable life skills that children will find useful today and in the future, no matter what career they end up choosing.
But coding is an unknown for many of us – the reputation of coding as something advanced and almost mystical that needs many years of tertiary education is understandable. Many believe that the subject is inaccessible to persons who are not professionally qualified.
We are scared by the idea of a steep learning curve. This is partially true. Professional software development is an advanced subject that takes years to master, but there is a world of coding that has been specifically developed to be attractive and accessible to children. And this is where it gets interesting!
A widely used introduction for children into the world of coding is Scratch, a simple language that makes it easy to quickly grasp some basic ideas of coding. Developed and distributed by MIT, Scratch is available online free of charge ( https://scratch.mit.edu ).
There are excellent online resources to introduce Scratch to adults and children. There is also an online community that answers your questions and provides an ongoing supply of ideas and projects for interactive stories, animations and games. Scratch allows users to program by connecting existing blocks of code together, rather than completely typing them out themselves.
These blocks are joined together to make a script (or set of instructions) which can be used to move and animate visual objects called sprites in the program – this allows users to easily understand the link between their instructions and the results. This serves as a great starting point to learn the basics of coding which can then be used later on if needed to move onto more advanced programming languages.
Programmable toys are also available – these come in the shape of toy robots or DIY kits which can be remotely controlled by instructions keyed into a connected program on a tablet or computer.
This works well especially for younger children as it gives them a fun way to see immediate results from their coding. These kits are usually accompanied by online resources such as step by step instructions, games, challenges and guides for parents/instructors. It also works well for older children who can build more complicated models with, for example, motors and sensors, that can add more complex intelligent responses and movement to the models.
It is encouraging to see that locally there is an increasing amount of initiatives that are targeted at young coders and families. These serve as a great introduction to the world of coding. I attended a recent event that was open to the public with one of my grandchildren and a friend – Family Coding at the Library at Floriana, where children and their parents/guardians were given an opportunity to learn how to code.
By the end of the session, all the children who attended were participating by creating a scene/story on a tablet similar to the ones that they are given in schools. They were coding using ScratchJr which is an introductory programming language for children between the ages of 5 to 7 ( https://www.scratchjr.org/about/info ).
By snapping together the ScratchJr graphical programming blocks, they programmed commands which were executed by characters chosen by the children themselves. With a variety of characters and scenes to choose from, the children’s imagination was stimulated as they were encouraged to build their own stories. The results were amazing and diverse. The accompanying adults enjoyed the event as much as the children did. Events such as this are a great starting point into the world of coding in a practical manner.
This makes coding a great activity to be enjoyed by both adults and children – children are learning through play and developing a vast range of cognitive, analytical and creative skills, while adults have the opportunity to turn screen time into a productive activity that can be enjoyed together.
While such organised activities are welcome and helpful, they do not mean that you yourself cannot explore the enticing world of coding together with your children or grandchildren in your home. I was attracted to the idea of introducing coding to my grandchildren. As I was born in the first half of last century, you may think that it is because I am old school that I use a variety of books to introduce children to coding. However, I can assure you that the books that are available today are so well written, illustrated and designed that children find them an attractive and enticing aid to coding.
They range from lift-the-flap books about coding in general, to specific well-illustrated books about Computer Coding, Computer Coding Projects, Computer Coding Games for children. Apart from helping to make the step-by-step building of the code very attractive and easy to follow, there is the added advantage of showing the lasting relevance of books in a digital age.
So, what are you waiting for? Choose Scratch or another suitable coding language designed for children. Start coding and away you go! Plan family coding time and be prepared to become hooked as you realise how effortless and what fun family coding can be.