In India, toddlers are starting to write computer codes before they can talk

Image: REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
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Nothing distracts Rishi Shiv P when he is writing computer code. The five-year-old’s eyes remain fixed on the screen and his little fingers dance across the keyboard, as he unfurls drop-down menus and builds nested loops.

“This is Flappy Bird game,” he explained, sitting at his mother’s desk, his favourite corner in their Bengaluru house. The game is nearly complete. He is just adding his chosen colour to the background, against which a bird will eventually fly through an obstacle course. As Rishi gets busy finding the right command, his mother Recheshwari Shiv tells me about the games and animations he has created in the past four months. Even discounting for her love as a parent, the child’s aptitude for programming sounds prodigious.

“My favourite is the throwball game, where I throw the ball…and play with the computer to hit the goal,” Rishi proclaimed, with infectious energy. His early interest in computers and technology was what made his parents enrol him at Whitehat Jr, a Mumbai company that provides children with programming tutorials. Now the child spends around three hours every week learning to code.

Rishi’s coding instructor at Whitehat Jr, Anchal Rekhi, is proud of the progress he has made. “When Rishi created the throwball game, I was amazed to see how he used logic to adjust the ball speed so that it hits the goal,” said the 29-year-old who has a degree in graphic design. “Children use drag-and-drop codes but sometimes they get really creative.” Rishi is among those with a creative flair for coding.

Click and swipe

In today’s digital age, most children learn to swipe and click before they can speak coherently or walk. Smartphones and tablets are their digital pacifiers, companions and entertainers. It is but natural, then, that many parents want their children to learn how to create the very technologies that they are dependent on.

Servicing these needs in India are a great number of coding and programming centres in Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Gurugram, and Chandigarh. Most of these places use a common pool of tools and platforms—such as Code Studio, LightBot, Botley or MIT’s Scratch—which were created for a western market where teaching children to code is already a flourishing industry. The goal is to nurture in a child the skill to develop a meticulous set of instructions in a language that the computer understands.

“Before Industrial Revolution, fewer than 10% of schools taught mathematics,” said Karan Bajaj, who founded Whitehat Jr in 2018 in Mumbai. After the tipping point, “every school introduced mathematics because that was the centre of the revolution. Now we are in the middle of the computer revolution, and it’s the same phenomenon: schools need to realise the importance of coding as a skill.”

At Whitehat Jr, Rekhi says, children are first taught terms such as code, commands, and algorithms. The next lesson is in how to break a task “into multiple commands that the computer can understand”—the very fundaments of coding and programming. “Kids do not need to be proficient in reading or writing to do this because we use stories and images to explain the concepts.”

Bajaj elaborated further: “Even at the age of four or five, kids have a basic structure of logic. So, in our classes, we have seen a six-year-old create a spelling bee and a seven- or an eight-year-old create a UFO through drag-and-drop codes. We use block-based coding and tools, where the focus is more on logic than syntax, which is like the grammar of computer languages.”

Digital literacy

Building games and apps are not the only reason children are being nudged into computer programming. There is a growing need for digital literacy, and for children with easy access to technology, coding offers a chance to improve cognitive skills and develop computational thinking.

In Bengaluru, Bharat Divyang, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology and father of a five-year-old, runs ZugZwang Academy, or what he calls a brain gym. Divyang’s love for chess and his belief in the idea of fluid intelligence prompted him to combine both and offer interdisciplinary courses in chess, coding, and programming for seven- to 14-year-olds.

On a weekday, 10-year-old Rohit was busy solving a challenge in the programming language Python. The youngest in a group of seven students, he seemed to have found his passion. “I love to take Python challenges,” he said. “If it is an easy level, I can complete seven to eight in a day, but sometimes I get stuck and complete only one. My friends do not get to do this because this is not what they teach us in the school computer class. I want to be a software engineer when I grow up, and I might go to a foreign country to do this.”

An hour later, the next batch arrived. Eight-year-old Ananya was handed an iPad with access to Lightbot, a coding-based puzzle game. Her task was to move a robot in multiple directions by giving commands to the system. She explained to me the constraints and the rules she must abide by. I saw her juggling between commands as she decided what the robot needed to do.

“Children are now exposed to technology as soon as they are born, but it is better if my child engages with technology with a critical understanding rather than becoming a passive user,” said Srivatsa Srinath. He enrolled his four-year-old son Harshil in chess classes in 2018 and in coding lessons this year.

Moving beyond the standard coding fare, Divyang recently introduced a course on cryptography. There, eight- and nine-year-olds are taught about cryptocurrencies and encryption using puzzles and platforms like Cryptogram.

“We do not believe that every child who enrols in these classes is a future software engineer,” he said. “They could be an artist, a doctor, a painter or a teacher, but what we do believe is that the coding and computational thinking will help them in excelling at anything they do in a digitally connected world.”

In 2017, Eupheus Learning, an ed-tech startup from Delhi, launched Cubetto, a coding kit for children. Cubetto is a wooden robotic toy, which can be programmed by kids as young as three years. “We have introduced Cubetto at the pre-school level in about 300 schools in India,” said Sarvesh Srivastava, co-founder of Eupheus Learning. “Cubetto’s innovation is the block-based coding language designed for children in pre-literate years. It is a coding solution without screens that teaches the basics of programming to toddlers.”

Both parents and educators believe that in a country like India, where the education system grapples with lack of innovation, infrastructure, and archaic curriculum, coding is a well-structured way to introduce children to logical thinking and problem-solving. This also prepares them for a job market dominated by data science and computer sciences.

Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK-based charity that promotes the study of computer science education in schools, has started Code Clubs and CoderDojo programmes in India. The idea is to help schools and communities with limited resources to conduct programming workshops for children and create a level playing field. But is there a problem with kids as young as three or four learning to code?

Holistic upbringing

Latha Madhusudan, principal and co-founder of Prakriti Waldorf Kindergarten in Bengaluru, which promotes the idea of “natural intelligence,” and “stress-free schooling,” believes that we do not need more machines to teach our kids how to handle life.

“A child’s inner perspective is built by his interactions with the outside world,” said Madhusudan. “The physiology of the child requires the development of both fine and gross motor skills. The child achieves this by spending time playing and using his limbs and body to gain control of his system. Those are the skills that will wire the brain. Introducing technology at an early age will take that away from the child and compromise the physiology forever.”

There is already evidence of technology rewiring our brain and altering our bodies. Critics believe that shrinking attention spans and increasing mental health issues call for a holistic and mindful upbringing of children. As much as they need to adapt to a changing world, they deserve a chance to live their childhood like nothing else but children.

Rishi’s mother Recheshwari Shiv is aware of the balance required. “Rishi gets bored of everything very soon. He wants to explore new games and new things on the computer every day, but I make sure he interacts with the outside world and his screen time is not more than two hours a day,” she said, as she got him ready to go out and play with his friends.

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