“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X
Be it a mystery, what you make of it, or whether or not it is in your hands, everyone hopes for a brighter future. In many ways, we are led to believe that the sum of our everyday actions reflects our desire to achieve a better tomorrow: “Dreams don’t work unless you do,” “Control your own destiny or someone else will.” Indeed, society’s attitude towards things to come has evolved from total resignation (“Que sera, sera.”) to taking responsibility – not only for ourselves, but more importantly, for our children.
At the 21st edition of CreativeMornings Utercht (31 January 2014), digital media expert Remco Pijpers declared that it is never too early to prepare for the future. As CEO of youth knowledge and (digital) media centre Mijn Kind Online (My Kid Online), he is a staunch advocate of teaching children how to code at a very young age. Together with Sanoma Netherlands publisher Suzan Schouten and media educator Pauline Maas, Pijpers is convinced that coding will ultimately be a vital skill in the years to come.
“In the 90s, there weren’t many children online,” Pijpers says. “No one believed digital kids would be an important topic.” Since public access to the Internet was quite limited, there were only a handful of websites that catered to children directly. By the early 2000s, major brands such as Disney, Fox Kids and Kaboem in the Netherlands were launching websites of their own. Nevertheless, it was not until the advent of social media and Web 2.0 that children’s online presence significantly increased.
“The Netherlands has the most children using social media,” Pijpers claims. Long before the creation of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, children were already interacting with peers from across the globe via online games. Despite their massive success in catering to a very young audience, these programs gave rise to a peculiar problem. “Adult companies are earning a lot of money by letting children believe that it’s all for free,” Pijpers states. “To have a good time, you need to pay money.” Since most parents would never agree to such a scheme, some children have developed rather creative solutions. After all, even in this day and age of modern technology, necessity is still the mother of invention.
In an online, open world such as Habbo (previously known as Habbo Hotel), for example, children began to create services for other players –such as stores, hospitals and cafes– using the programming tools provided by the software itself in exchange for virtual money. This way, they would be able to play the entire game without any inconvenience. According to Pijpers, “[Children were] earning money by doing good for others and being creative.” Moreover, they were able to use their critical thinking and resourcefulness to come up with viable solutions. Still, the speakers believe that these sets of skills are not being honed enough in schools.
“Kids are changing so fast,” says Suzan Schouten. “The market is changing fast but the kids are changing faster.” As kids and teens publisher for Sanoma Netherlands, Schouten is well aware of the monumental developments regarding children and media. “What do [children] need in 20 years?” she asks. “What do they need to make a living? What kind of jobs will be there? What skills do they need?” In a nutshell, creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and communication rank high among the abilities required in the 21st century. In order to develop these fundamental skills, children apparently need to learn how to code.
“The future has professions that do not exist right now,” argues Pijpers “and we need children capable of doing those professions but also inventing those professions, inventing new products, new markets. It’s not only important to teach them how to code, but also to teach them how to invent things, think critically, think in a new way.” In an effort to stimulate the acquisition of these skills, Mijn Kind Online along with ICT partner for education Kennisnet has initiated a programme that exposes children in the Netherlands (ages 6 to 12) to the basics of back-end digital media and coding in schools. Dubbed Code Kinderen (Code Kids), the initiative aims to integrate coding as mandatory subject in the standard primary school curriculum.
“I think [through coding] you can teach children to be critical,” says author and media educator Pauline Maas. “You can teach them how to be entrepreneurs.” As an expert in media literacy, gaming and social media, Maas is a fervent supporter of teaching children how to code. “They can learn it in a hour,” she insists. “It isn’t difficult for them at all.” Through interactive programs such as the Hour of Code Challenge, kids are able to complete short programming tutorials that are both educational and entertaining. As a matter of fact, the instructive software launched by Code.org incorporates actual games such as Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies in its tutorials and is geared towards a broader audience from ages 6 to 106. In short, anyone willing can learn how to code in a span of just one hour.
Simple though this may be, the idea of teaching children programming at the age of six can be somewhat disquieting. At a critical stage when children are only beginning to learn how to read and write, coding may be the least of a child’s worries. Yet, it is not the knowledge of code that takes precedence in this initiative, but the life-changing skills that come with it. “You need to be enthusiastic for this [project],” urges Schouten. “It’s not easy to get programming into schools.” Nevertheless, she is quite certain that children will need it in the future.
“I think we’re in the middle of a revolution;” Pijpers claims, “a digital revolution that’s speeding up and we need to do it together with the children and teach them at the same time to think critically, and help them in finding the future for themselves [and] defining the future for themselves.” In this way, coding is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. “The children of today need to solve the problems of tomorrow,” Pijpers adds. “ICT can help but we need people capable of using ICT, not only selling Apps, but really making the world a better place.” In order to ensure this great future, the skills of tomorrow must be acquired today. ✌
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