Dr Sarah Gerson is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. She has published over 20 articles on child development, focusing on how infants and young children begin to learn about actions and other people. Dr Johanna van Schaik is a researcher at Leiden University with a background in cognitive neuroscience, biology, and psychology. She investigates how young children form and update science concepts during hands-on experimentation.
Most of you reading this already think that gaining experience with coding is important. You’re not alone. Recent surveys by Gallup and Google show that both parents and students think that learning computer science can lead to a variety of jobs that can improve lives.
The general impression that learning about computers is important is shared by educators, administrators and policy-makers. This has led to curriculum changes such that most primary and secondary school students in the UK gain at least minimal experience with computer science. New toys like Cubetto give even younger children the chance to engage with coding.
When and how are children first exposed to computers and coding? Have technological advances and new toys changed attitudes and exposure across generations? In research conducted at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and at Leiden University, my colleague Dr Johanna van Schaik and I (Dr Sarah Gerson), asked these questions in a recent survey of parents including 15 different countries, spanning Europe, North and South America, and Australia.
One change in digital technology in recent decades is the use of personal computers, particularly in childhood. Younger parents were more likely to have accessed a computer before the age of 10 (42 per cent) than older parents (11-22 per cent). Yet, nearly 90 per cent of children between the ages of ten and 20 first accessed a computer before the age of ten and 65 per cent of children between four and ten years of age had already been exposed to computers.
While 50 per cent of the parents completing the questionnaire had no experience with coding, 14 per cent of children under 4 reported to have had some experience with coding. Between the ages of four and seven, nearly half of the children had gained experience with coding. Children eight years and above were already surpassing their parents’ rates of coding, with 59 per cent of children having gained some experience. Together, this new data indicates that children are beginning to engage with computers and coding prior to formal schooling and at much higher rates than their parents.
Given increased interest in coding, an important question is whether such early exposure to computer coding is actually useful for children. Training studies consist of groups that give children new experiences with coding to see what effects or benefits it may have. The idea is akin to ‘training’ them in coding but in a more playful environment. A handful of these training studies performed at schools and summer camps suggest that hands-on experience can help school-aged children start grasping the basic concepts of coding. However, whether children are able to transfer this hands-on knowledge to computer-situated programming, and how long they can reap the benefits of these training sessions, remains understudied.
One promising finding is that children enjoy the challenge of coding and that early exposure is, at the least, beneficial for attitudes towards STEM. For example, a recent study by the University of Washington and Play Works Studio, Seattle, showed that providing 6-year-old girls with coding experience increased their self-reported interest in technology and decreased the extent to which they thought that boys would be better at coding than girls.
In ongoing research at Cardiff University, we are assessing whether experience with Cubetto changes 3-6-year-old children’s planning and perspective-taking skills. We are also investigating whether they can transfer what they learn from Cubetto to a different coding app on a tablet. If you’re interested in learning more about how we’re learning from Cubetto, contact us at our Tiny to Tots Facebook page.