Coding for kids – how soon is too soon?

Anuradha C

When we say software developer, a certain stereotype comes into our minds. A 20 something, young and eager Indian, and a science or engineering graduate. A geeky, aspirational youngster who dreams of working with the world’s leading companies and solving real word problems through computer programming. Probably, someone who has a bigger bank balance than his father within a few years of starting work!

Now, picture this. A six-year-old girl from Bangalore. Gap toothed, thick-rimmed glasses. Studying in class 1 at one of the fancy schools. Enrolled into an online coding workshop for her summer vacation. The online coding training company puts her face in the advertisements claiming that the girl is a genius in the making. That she is already on the way to earning a million dollar pay-check at one of the mighty MNCs.

The first image of the conventional fresh graduate is a welcome sight, and probably one of India’s largest talent pools. The second image is however a disturbing one, raising questions about the intrusion of IT learning into a child’s early life. Is software programming one of the first few skills we want children to pick up in their lives? How soon is too soon to begin learning programming? Let’s explore.

What are the first few skills we would expect children to pick up? Spoken languages, outdoor games, basic math, personal hygiene, working in teams, native culture – these would have been the possible list of answers a few years ago. But today, software programming is fast displacing some of the items in the list above. If you thought this is a phenomenon limited to a few big metros, think again. A large chunk of enrolments into coding workshops for primary school students is coming from Tier II cities.

What motivates a parent to choose coding as a primary learning skill for their pre-teens is debatable. Some parents are techies themselves and simply love what they are doing. So the kids at home are naturally inclined to pick up coding as a skill. That’s natural and understandable too. However, surveys suggest a myriad other reasons that parents give for their decision. “Picking up IT skills early can guarantee a prosperous career for my kids.” “An IT job for my kid is a sure shot way for my family to move up the social ladder, to get out of poverty.” “Other professions cannot guarantee a job, but IT can. It’s a safe choice.”

There are also some statistics being thrown around like the following “In a decade’s time, 71% of all new jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) would be in computing”, “2.4 million programming jobs are likely to go unfulfilled in the next 4-5 years.”

Very few of the reasons given are linked to the child’s natural inclination or aptitude. That’s fairly obvious because the child is too young to know his/her likes and dislikes. Parents have always been entrusted with the responsibility of choosing career paths/vocations on behalf of their children. So what’s wrong with them choosing coding, one might ask. Nothing, if done in moderation, and as a light pursuit purely out of interest in programming.

There are some worrying aspects that parents need to take note of, before they voluntarily choose coding as a priority activity for their child, to the exclusion of other normal pursuits. Some of these are:

An individual skill – Software programming is good for cognitive learning and development of the brain, there is no doubt about that. It greatly hones the analytical reasoning and problem solving abilities as well. But early age programming tends to be a lonely affair. Kids spend hours experimenting with their programs, and the computer is their only companion. Child psychologists have noted that children spending inordinate amounts of time in coding tend to become loners and avoid social interaction. Their comfort level among friends or extended family is seen to dip. This could lead to serious social handicaps as they grow up.

Too much screen time – Even without learning to write code, kids today spend an unholy number of hours glued to digital screens of various types – phone, gaming device, laptop, TV in that order. Add to that, hours of huddling in front ofthe laptop, punching keys and staring at the screen in abject concentration. Just a quick glance at all the kids around your block will tell you, a startling number of them are in glasses as early as the age of 4. Starting intense computer activity too early is simply not advisable for children’s eyesight.

Restrictive formats of programming languages – Picking up new languages is considered one of the most important learning objectives for children, natural languages that is. Whether it is the child’s mother tongue, English or other Indian/foreign languages. However, there is a key difference when it comes to learning programming languages. By design, programming languages are rigid, heavily rule-based and restrictive when compared to natural languages. So in the learning phase, children are likely to make plenty of mistakes. The computer is not a lenient teacher, it will keep flagging all initial wrong attempts as errors. Quite unlike a child experimenting with speaking incorrect or incomplete sentences, where the parent will simply smile and let it pass. Or gently suggest a correction. The “no scope for mistakes” aspect of programming is likely to be a confidence sapper for kids.

Too early to enter the rat race – The biggest draw in most of the coding workshop advertisements is the mega size salary that the kids would be earning right at the start of their careers. Making money the primary objective of a child’s life goals so early in his/her life is not a welcome idea. It skews the child’s perspective towards the simpler pleasures of life. The competitive streak is already too strong in today’s children with academics, hobbies and sports. With coding contests, scholarship inducements, early job offers, we are pushing a child into the adult world a bit too soon.

The reader may find the arguments presented one sided, stacked heavily against allowing pre-teens to actively pursue coding. I haven’t really delved much into the positive outcomes of a child becoming a prolific programmer. There are quite many, I can vouch for them too. I am a computer science engineer by qualification and vocation. I have done this all my life! But that is precisely the reason why I decided to take a step back and look at this situation with passive objectivity.

I am also echoing the worried murmurs that are extensively doing the rounds among the tech fraternity about the rapid commercialization of computer education for kids. Most of these coding workshops charge anywhere between Rs 30000 and Rs 1 lakh for a few hours of coaching. And their sales pitch is heavily tuned towards playing with the sentiments of the vulnerable and aspirational parent. My intention is to just sound a word of caution before a parent makes this choice for their child.

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply