Michael, a 5-year-old boy, and his mother Sasha, a 40-year-old dance instructor, exchanged enthusiastic high fives. They were at a family coding event and had been working together to brainstorm an idea for a story, draw it on paper and try out different ways to recreate it using KIBO, a tangible robotics platform programmed using interlocking wooden blocks.
After 20 minutes of talking, planning and building, the mother-son duo had successfully programmed their KIBO robot to tell a story about driving in Boston traffic. Michael called over the event facilitator, eager to showcase their creation. He pressed the green triangle on top of the robot to run the program again.
As the KIBO robot moved around the floor, flashing its lights and making different sounds, Sasha narrated their story. “You're driving forward, and you see a red light and you're frustrated. ‘Beep beep,’” she says, laughing with her son. Michael chimes in with more detail, explaining that their robotic bus was rushing to a hotel that was closing early, so the bus driver was going very fast to get there before it closed. The facilitator praised Michael for inventing a silly, yet cohesive story.
Down the hall, 7-year-old Tanya, peered over a tablet with her father Albert. The screen displayed the ScratchJr app, a free coding app for young children to design characters and animate them by snapping together programming blocks. Tanya pressed the green “record sound” block and began narrating a story about her characters, a wizard and a seahorse. Albert suggested adding another character to make the story more complex and Tanya proceeded to design a new character with a picture of her face inserted inside an astronaut suit.
Tanya, age 7, and her father Albert work collaboratively on an open-ended coding project using the free ScratchJr programming application. Credit: Tufts University.
Through brainstorming, planning and programming together, these families gained confidence and interest in coding, and both parents increased their awareness of developmentally appropriate and playful ways to introduce coding in early childhood. Most importantly, they walked away with a new activity to do together, just like reading a book or playing a board game.
These creative coding projects took place during Family Coding Day, a free event hosted by the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University, which is dedicated to designing and evaluating technologies that promote young children’s learning and development. The event first started as a community outreach initiative for DevTech in 2016. It was designed by researchers as a way for young children and their families to gain exposure to coding by learning how to use a coding tool and collaborating on an open-ended project.
In 2017, after receiving positive feedback from parents, DevTech embarked on a research project to better understand families’ experiences and nuances of parent-child interactions using different coding technologies. As part of this work, DevTech hosted 14 Family Coding Day events reaching over a hundred families, conducted surveys and observed play sessions to learn more about the impact of these events.
In addition, DevTech recruited facilitators, such as educators and museum coordinators, from all over the country to host these events in their respective communities and created Family Coding Day protocols that are freely accessible and can be adapted for other coding technologies.
The underlying principles of Family Coding Days are rooted in constructionism, or learning-by-making and participatory learning. The idea is that when children and parents are exposed to coding and have the opportunity to create meaningful artifacts together, they can learn together. The one-time events are held in informal settings, such as museums, after-school programs and community centers and attendees don’t need prior experience because the facilitator provides a brief tutorial for the tool using videos and tips provided in the protocols.
The tools used at these coding events—KIBO robotics kit and the ScratchJr app—were born from over a decade of research by the DevTech Research Group. These block-based programming languages utilize a low floor, high ceiling approach, meaning the technology is accessible enough for learners of all ages and abilities to participate and engaging enough so that users can build expertise and do more complex projects with time and experience.
Coding technologies for children, such as KIBO and ScratchJr, have become increasingly popular in recent years, largely due to the growing demand for computing jobs and the need to address inequities in the field. Code.org has been a prime example of championing the effort to address these gaps by supporting K-12 schools and developing initiatives to get girls and underrepresented minorities more interested and involved in computer science. But the problem is not always lack of interest. Sometimes it’s lack of exposure to coding technologies and activities at a young age. Another way to address these gaps is to improve avenues of exposure through parent and family engagement.
Research shows that parent engagement in extracurricular activities can, in turn, promote children’s engagement. We also know from existing family literacy research that shared reading interventions and home reading programs can enhance children’s linguistic and cognitive development. What if the same principle is applied to coding? In many ways, coding is now considered akin to language and as a playful and powerful way for children to think, communicate and express creative ideas.
Family coding events—such as Family Code Night, a whole-school event which is part of the Computer Science for All Initiative and Family Creative Learning, a workshop model that engages older children and families in creative computing activities—provide parents with the opportunity to engage children in creative self-expression and promote interest in coding. But there is a key difference between the family literacy and family coding movements: most adults are literate, but fewer identify as tech literate.
A national survey of 2,000 parents conducted by The Toy Association in 2017 revealed that 85 percent of parents consider coding to be a valuable skill for their young children, and view the ideal age for introducing coding toys as between 6 and 7 years old. However, 72 percent of parents indicated that their perceived lack of understanding of technology made it difficult to jointly engage in coding activities with their children. So how do we empower parents to be creative coding partners? Shift the focus to exposure, rather than knowledge.
Our findings from parent surveys and observations of play sessions indicated that Family Coding Day events significantly enhanced both children and parents’ interest in coding. Regardless of whether parents worked in a STEM-related profession or what type of coding technology that families used (KIBO versus ScratchJr), parents were able to successfully co-engage in coding projects by asking questions, offering suggestions and providing encouragement.
Just as children’s language and literacy skills can be augmented outside of the classroom, coding can be a shared activity in homes and other informal learning settings, if families have access to experiences that allow them to practice together.
In order to meet the increasing demands of the workforce and to minimize the existing gender and racial gaps in the computing field, it is essential that we strive to create an equitable pathway for children to gain those skills. That pathway involves both K-12 computer science standards and frameworks, as well as exposure to informal family learning opportunities.
At the end of Michael and Sasha’s play session, Michael made a card for his mother to thank her for learning to play with KIBO with him. The card read: “I love you Mom. Let’s do this again.” Later that summer, Michael participated in a week-long summer coding program because according to Sasha, “he just had so much fun and couldn’t stop talking about it at home.”
Empowering parents as creative coding partners doesn’t mean positioning them as experts. Instead, it means families need creative spaces where they can come together, code together and learn together.
Madhu Govind is a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.
Marina Umaschi Bers is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the computer science department at Tufts University.