Toddlers Are the Newest Target in the ‘Learn to Code’ Craze: At What Age Is it Appropriate?

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Just as the tech community in Canada and abroad has strongly advocated for more coding education for women, it has similarly put its enthusiastic support behind coding education for teenage boys and girls in high school.

What’s next, you ask? Coding for toddlers, of course! That’s what recent headlines in Canada surrounded as a result of the GROW Conference, in which two Canadian startup founders came together to create a new tool for helping three-year-olds how to code.

What followed were headlines like “Learn to code craze spreads to toddlers,” pointing out the oft-forgotten fact that coding education at times can resemble a “craze” or “fad.”

But lets make no mistake about it: craze or not, learning how to code can ultimately (and quite likely) improve a person’s quality of life, as even just a rudimentary understanding is enough to make an employer smile. The fact that a colleague recently told me that he had just hired a 23-year-old developer who will take home the healthy salary of US $145,000, means that the hype surrounding coding education is real.

Thus, we come to the Littlecodr idea that apparently sprung from a hallway conversation between the two founders. Nathan Slee and Alexandra Greenhill created a card game that teaches kids from three to eight-years-old the basics of coding and put the product online for $19 while at the conference. Within 24 hours the pair had already sold 20 sets, a number that’s likely doubled by now.

I wondered, however, at what point it’s appropriate to encourage children to learn HTML and other coding languages, and at what age is it inappropriate? While the brain of a three-year-old is incredibly malleable, couldn’t we wait for a few years before subjecting the poor child to coding? Shouldn’t a three-year-old be spending his/her time exploring, playing and otherwise doing, you know, stuff that three-year-olds like to do?

We sought out the opinions of some colleagues who gave us differing, but interesting answers.

Ian Jeffery, someone we’ve quoted extensively throughout his former position as general manager of the FounderFuel startup accelerator, is now at Montreal’s PasswordBox as head of marketing.

His two boys are 2 and 5, and he doesn’t feel that the issue is too big of a deal: if his boys want to play soccer, they can play soccer. If they want to learn code then they can learn code, but he won’t impose anything on them.

“Coding is just one other thing,” he told BetaKit. “Everyone one has different interests and if they want to do it, then they can do it. They’re small human beings and they should be able to make their own decisions.”

Meanwhile, BetaKit/We Are Wearables writer Tom Emrich and Gingko founder Adriano Ferrari both pointed to learning creativity and problem-solving as the more-important issue when discussing such early-age initiatives for children.

Emrich feels that had someone presented him the opportunity to learn coding as a child, maybe his career would have been completely different. Today he looks fondly at his two young nieces as good examples of children rapidly grasping a new language. They’re both in french-immersive programs where they live, in Ottawa.

Coding, said Emrich, is just another type of language after all. But let’s not limit ourselves to coding in trying to nurture a toddler’s creativity.

“At the end of the day it’s all about problem-solving, and that’s what creativity and coding are: but it doesn’t necessarily have to be coding only,” he said. “I think it’s just really encouraging children in general to be able to express their creativity in as many different ways as possible. As much as we need coders we need designers, or business-oriented individuals who are going to make money for the companies to let the coders put food on the table.”

Still, he said, we need to present to children the opportunity to learn code. But at what point is it simply too young?

Emrich said if children are learning another language at three, then why not teach them coding? They’re not necessarily being sat in front of an HTML editor on a computer screen all day. Rather, like the new Littlecodr card game, it’s more about “introducing those building blocks to them in a way that would make their road a little bit easier if they were to get into coding.”

Moreover, he pointed out that we’re already seeing tons of toddlers and young kids getting into rudimentary robotics as well.

Ferrari’s son Zeno is just 18-months-old and he’s planning to home-school him. Like Emrich, Ferrari said what really matters at any age is learning creativity and problem-solving. Coding is just one medium for creative expression and analytical thinking, and a very important one in our digital age.

Largely he see’s coding as analogous to a musical instrument. “If parents are pushing toddlers to code because ‘it will be useful to them in the future,’ they are missing the point of teaching,” Ferrari told BetaKit. “If, on the other hand a child is drawn to, and loves the digital world, it’d be great if parents supported their inclinations and talents.”

One would have to assume that the two Littlecodr founders must have thought about all of this during their now famous discussion. Judging by the immediate popularity of the card-game, it looks like parents are buying into it.

Joseph Czikk

Joseph Czikk

Joseph Czikk previously has written for the National Post, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader Post, Techvibes and BC Business Online. Joseph often goes crazy on twitter during NHL and NFL games.