Of robots and binary trees: Kids in Singapore start young at coding

15 Mar 2021

Straits Times, 15 Mar 2021, Of robots and binary trees: Kids in Singapore start young at coding
More children are tinkering with coding - and they are getting younger and younger.

Five years ago, they would be mostly students from primary and secondary schools, thanks largely to the Code for Fun enrichment programme offered by the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore and the Ministry of Education.

The interest has since filtered down to pre-schools, with coding being part of their curriculum or an enrichment option at some school chains, such as Carpe Diem, EtonHouse, E-Bridge and Kinderland.

For pre-school kids, the focus of such coding classes is on teaching them to think logically and solve problems systematically. It is not about writing code for computers, says Professor Looi Chee Kit from the National Institute of Education's Learning Sciences and Assessment Academic Group.

And no, the kids do not need to be able to read and write properly. They learn through play-based approaches to programme a robot to navigate a maze or move around objects.

Advocates say children can pick up new skills and knowledge quickly simply because they are young and curious.

"Pre-schoolers are amazingly fast learners, which makes it a perfect time to introduce basic coding concepts," says Mr Aditya Batura, co-founder and chief executive officer of Codomo.

His education technology company has run training coding programmes for teachers and children from pre-schools including Chiltern House, Columbia Preschool and PCF Sparkletots. It also designs learning products like Potato Pirates, a card game to develop kids' computation thinking.

"I started coding only in university when I was about 21, which is why I'm an advocate for introducing it at an early age, because I wish I had experienced that," says Mr Batura.

It is not just software engineers who need knowledge in computing language, which he describes as the English of the 21st century.

"Even if your child is going down a career path which is completely unrelated to coding, it's not a skill that is going to waste because it teaches him creativity, problem solving and persistence, among others. These can be easily transferred into any occupation in the future," says Mr Batura, who is also a Singapore University of Technology and Design Academy adjunct fellow.

Just like any language, the best age to develop digital literacy is when the brain is developing.

Dr Elaine Kim, co-founder and chief executive officer of Trehaus pre-school, says up to age six, children's brains are like sponges, taking in everything around them.

"They're joining dots and processing information in a way that they won't be able to do when they're older. That initial curiosity, creativity and passion for learning, very sadly, often get chipped away," says Dr Kim, who is also a medical doctor and has three sons aged four to nine.

"I would never be as adept at coding as my eldest son, who picked it up almost like a native language," she adds.

Her son Kyan Kim, nine, was introduced to computational thinking when he was four years old and has shown an aptitude for it.

"He has built his own website and apps. Whenever I see him in action, I don't understand most of what he is doing. I've no idea what he's talking about," she says with a laugh.

Trehaus, which was set up in 2017, is one of the pioneers in introducing computational thinking to young children here.

Pre-school chain Star Learners Group recently introduced robotics and coding as an optional enrichment programme at seven of its 42 centres islandwide.

Coding helps hone critical thinking, problem-solving skills

"We see benefits to this learning approach, such as honing our children's critical thinking as well as problem-solving skills. These are 21st-century skills which we impart and place emphasis on, through our literature-based curriculum," says cluster principal Koh Hui Siu.

But do kids not pick up these skills from activities other than coding ?

Codomo's Mr Batura agrees that playing with brain toys, such as shape-sorters, jigsaw puzzles and the game Mastermind, can help kids develop critical thinking skills.

"But there is only so much you can do with them, right? It's the same drill over and over again," he says.

"Whereas if kids are playing with programmable toys and coding apps, they keep their attention for a much longer period of time. They can see instantly what is happening and even identify how well they are doing."

Prof Looi says coding classes may not be for all kids. "Unless your child has a desire to learn, not all pre-schoolers need to learn coding in the stricter sense of learning a simple programming language."

Young children can be exposed to some of the fundamental ideas in computer science with age-appropriate materials, just as in reading, writing, maths and science.

As they get older, those who continue to learn to code using a computer are encouraged to create a program that works and does something fun.

"It may be frustrating for children to learn how to express and get their instructions across. But, when they persist, they will see outcomes that can give satisfaction. They will learn resilience and experience success," Prof Looi adds.

Ms Yvonne Tan, 34, a consultant, will be enrolling her son Xandar, three, in the coding enrichment class offered at his childcare centre, Carpe Diem.

"I know coding is now taught in primary schools. Having a head start will help him build a better foundation and learn logical thinking," says Ms Tan, whose son also attends enrichment programmes in English reading and Chinese.

Joel Ang, five, started weekly classes at a private centre last December. His dad, Mr Vincent Ang, 46, an engineer, says it is too soon to tell the benefits of learning coding.

"He likes the course because it's just playtime for him. I hope the thinking skills from coding will help him in maths in future," he says.


Unlike primary and secondary school children who learn coding on smart tablets and computers, pre-school kids are introduced to the concepts on limited screen time.

This is in accordance with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that children from ages one to five should spend no more than one hour on digital devices daily.

Computer Science Unplugged (csunplugged.org) is a movement gaining momentum globally as educators combat this issue of overexposure to screens, which is a major drawback of teaching coding to pre-school kids. It focuses on teaching computer science without a computer, says Mr Aditya Batura of Codomo.

At Trehaus pre-school, for example, three- and four-year-olds learn about directions – up, down, left and right – and navigating their way around a town using colourful activity sheets during a class.

Saturday Kids, a coding school and social enterprise set up in 2012, introduced classes for kids aged five to six in 2017.

During its Curious Creatures course, the children collaborate with one another to reimagine a classic children’s story such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Programming concepts like sequencing are reinforced through hands-on, non-screen activities including games, storytelling and art.

They would then recreate the story with the instructors as an animation using ScratchJr, a programming language that is purely visual, says Ms Tan Yeehui, who is part of the marketing and special projects team.


LEARNING AT HOME SET by Learning Beautiful
Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, this play kit aims to teach kids aged three to nine the basics of computer science - without computers. It comes with Montessori-inspired learning materials covering topics including sorting algorithms, binary trees, patterns and mapping.

Follow the easy-to-read parents' handbook to guide your kids with activities suitable for their age and competency level.

Get it: $295 from learningbeautiful.com.sg

This stylish wooden robot will move according to how your children programme it using a control board and puzzle-like coding blocks. Each block represents an action - moving forward, backwards, left and right and more. Combine them to create a sequence.

The set includes a storybook and world map, so your children can take the robot on a coding adventure. There are more play ideas on its website. Recommended for kids aged three to six.

Get it: $339 from Shopee, Lazada and Amazon Singapore

The app for iPad and Mac works like an interactive and fun game for children from age four.

But while they are having fun solving puzzles and controlling the movements of an animated character, they are learning Swift. The latter is a programming language created by Apple and used by professionals to build popular apps including Airbnb and LinkedIn.

Get it: Free from App Store