Every child should learn digital skills because even social workers, nurses and policemen will need them in the workplace.
Children as young as four can start doing computer coding, even without a PC.
In one activity, for example, they help “Flerb” get through a maze to an apple by using arrows to instruct the character where to go. Although this may seem unremarkable, the child is actually creating a simple algorithm or set of instructions that forms the basis of computer programming.
Another “unplugged” activity requires a child to place commands in the correct order to plant a seed; another lays out the steps to make a paper aeroplane.
This “programming with paper” shows that you don’t need a computer, let alone the internet, to get your child dabbling in computer science and learning critical thinking skills, says Lindiwe Matlali, founder of nonprofit organisation Africa Teen Geeks.
But having a smartphone or a tablet is a good place to start.
And once children find out how they can solve tricky problems, create their own games, emojis and apps, and even figure out ways to improve on the design of existing games, many just can’t get enough of this form of playful learning.
According to Google’s Made With Code website, which aims to kindle a love of science and technology among teenage girls, code is a tool that lets you write your story with technology. It helps you communicate your ideas with a computer or program so they can be brought to life in creative ways.
One of the organisations bringing that ideology to practical life on local turf is Africa Teen Geeks. It wants to inspire and train Africa’s new generation of technology innovators, with a focus on “girl geeks” and disadvantaged youngsters.
“Not everyone will be a computer programmer, but every child should learn digital skills because even social workers, nurses and policemen will need them in the workplace,” notes Matlali.
Her Geek Clubs offer free computer science classes on Saturday mornings at Unisa’s Florida, Sunnyside and Parow campuses, for children from Grade 1 to matric.
From April 1, they will also be running Saturday classes in five community centres and 10 schools across Mpumalanga.
Talks are under way to expand their offering in Tshwane and, by year-end, these go-getting geeks could be imparting computer science skills to about 70 000 children throughout the country.
Parents can bring their children to one of Unisa’s 24 computer labs around the country between July 5 and 9 for the organisation’s computer science week, where they’ll be taught the basics of coding – considered one of the 21st-century workplace’s essential skills.
This culminates in its Festival of Code computer science competition in October.
Their volunteers can also train teachers how to introduce coding at their schools – especially those township schools where donated computers are gathering dust, but also at schools with no PCs. Children can learn coding fundamentals with a ball of wool and knitting needles through their Knit2Code programme.
“There’s no excuse, basically,” says Matlali, laughing. “Anyone who can hold a needle can do code.You don’t need an IQ of 190 to do coding – even kids who aren’t able to read can do it.”
Africa Teen Geeks once worked with a Johannesburg school where the children were selected “blindly” for the Festival of Code – and it later turned out that most of the youngsters who’d shown the greatest aptitude for coding had learning difficulties.
“Some kids may not be able to articulate well, but they enjoy having the ability to create something, so they work harder than the others and end up excelling.”
Some even go on to become certified as junior Java developers. But how can children learn the basics of programming and start dabbling in games, robotics, apps and the like without attending classes or being a Mensa member?
Matlali says, while many South African parents don’t have a computer at home, most will have a mobile device such as a smartphone and can access free Wi-Fi at work or in coffee shops, libraries or other public places. They can download coding apps for their children to tinker with instead of “sitting and playing repetitive games” that don’t teach them anything new, she says.
“There are many free apps and activities available for prereaders and preschoolers,” she says, “even for parents with no fixed internet connection. They teach the foundations of coding and make it fun for kids, some using simple drag-and-drop blocks. For most, you just need the internet to download them and then they can be used offline. This makes it more inclusive for everyone.”
Of course, says Matlali, tots can also learn basic coding skills through problem-solving activities such as building puzzles and playing with Lego blocks. “It forces them to think logically.”
Matlali invites corporates to throw open the doors to their IT departments to expose children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – to the real-life digital workplace.
She says that, far from the perception that computer science is hard, “kids have so much fun creating, being able to make something that moves – basically, telling the computer what to do. They love the challenge and it makes them work harder. By solving problems, they can be proud of what they’ve created.”
“The attitude we want to instil in kids is making the world better through technology.”
Learn computer coding from scratch
– Scratch (scratch.mit.edu): This free, creative learning tool is aimed at children aged eight to 18. By learning how to code in Scratch, they can create interactive games, stories and animations. Teachers can also use Scratch tutorials in class.
- Google’s Made with Code (madewithcode.com): A fun, free and easy way to design emojis, make a music track, create animated GIFs and spice up your selfies, using programming languages such as Blockly.
- Code.org (code.org): Free online computer science courses for children from four to 18. Unplugged (computer-free) lessons are also available for teachers to use in the classroom. Try a one-hour Hour of Code tutorial designed for all ages, from prereader level upwards – learn to code with Minecraft, Moana, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Angry Birds, Star Wars and more.
- Tynker (tynker.com): Children learn to code, develop games, programme drones, animate and develop apps from beginner level. Some projects are free.
- EdX (edx.org): Free, online, university-level courses and classes in programming from the world’s top institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. A small fee is charged for issuing a verified certificate.
- Coursera (coursera.org): Enrol for online digital courses (starting at $30 – R400) from the world’s leading universities – learn about algorithms through Princeton, Python programming through the University of Michigan, data science through Johns Hopkins University and more.