It’s creative, unscripted, exploratory play — not computer science — that builds innovative, tech-savvy kids.
The toy store shelves bristle with code robots, code caterpillars, logical turtles and bumblebees who love to take commands. Grab a book called Coding for Kids for Dummies, then download an app or three so your kids can code on the road.
It’s natural to want our children to succeed — computer programming is, after all, the next big thing, and it barely existed as a career option when many of us were born. But in the endless aisles of colorful coding creatures, we’ve lost sight of the real reason children are inspired to learn.
The direct, singular focus on teaching kids to code ignores the reality that software development as a profession tends to be boring, repetitive and easily commoditized. Coding is an honorable trade, but we’ve accidentally adopted the fantasy that learning to code is a surefire path to becoming an innovative, independent thinker.
At best, it’s a path to a stable job, at worst, to the assembly lines of the future. The skills that change lives are those that children develop through creative, exploratory play. When we cultivate play, we open the door for children to become the innovators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders we admire — and only then will they have a good reason to learn to code.
Twenty years ago, I wrote my first lines of HTML at age 12.
My teacher was another 12-year-old. Since then, coding for the web and its many offshoot environments and devices has shifted from a cutting-edge, experimental playground to a highly regimented, highly competitive marketplace. The same features that made web programming such a fantastic career opportunity for Millennials are also the bugs that will make it untenable for the next generation.
The first paradox is that most coding can be done anytime, anywhere. This has allowed developers to run flexible, low-overhead, location-independent businesses and seriously consider goals like working four hours a week from the beach. I took my laptop with me to Argentina for five months and made more money on vacation than I did at home. Then I moved cross-country within the US without skipping a beat or spending a moment considering a job search 1,000 miles away.
However, location flexibility also means that today’s programmers are competing in a marketplace that is overflowing with coders in developing nations whose rates are rapidly approaching zero dollars per hour. We can grasp for reasons that it’s better to pay 20 times the price to work with a local, but ethnocentrism can only hold its ground against globalization for so long. There’s an upper limit to how good your code can be, and there’s no limit to how much competition you have or how hard your competitors can work to achieve programming perfection.
The second paradox is that today’s prolific coders are putting future coders out of business. Five or ten years ago, a professionally designed, custom-coded web site for a mid-sized business was frequently a five-figure affair. Today, web sites that are better than those created by professional branding agencies a decade ago can be launched for a few dollars a month, with no technical knowledge required. In the past few years, I’ve told dozens of clients that “you can do this with Squarespace or Shopify.” In 2008 I would have sent them a bill for $10,000.
The sum of those trends is that pursuing code for the sake of a job is becoming a fool’s errand. To guide our children toward extraordinary careers, we need to shift our focus from training run-of-the-mill programmers to cultivating kids who thrive on experimental, exploratory play. Those experiences are the building blocks of creative technology entrepreneurs — who, by the way, also know how to code.
Derek Sivers wanted to be a rock star.
He struggled from gig to mediocre gig, but playing music always filled him with joy and creative focus. One day in the late ’90s, he tried selling his independent album online, only to find that the options for unsigned artists were few and far between. He opened a book about PHP and started work on a dirt-simple e-commerce site — before PayPal existed. His friends saw it, asked if he could sell their music too, and CD Baby was born.
The least important part of this story is that Sivers sold his company for $22 million. The crucial takeaway is that he built a successful coding career because he had a hobby and passion that gave him a reason to code. Building software in an environment that is divorced from excitement and purpose is a path to monotony and mediocrity. To make the most of code, you need to learn to play, invent and explore, so you can stumble upon reasons to build something cool.
The same tenet holds true for all-star hackers, too. Before he created Ruby on Rails, the framework that powered Twitter and fueled the Web 2.0 movement, David Heinemeier Hansson founded a Danish video-game news web site. The skills he’d developed as a gamer and freelance coder connected him with the co-founder of 37Signals, the company with which he’d give life to Rails and quickly rise to programming fame. In 2005, Google and O’Reilly named him hacker of the year — and in the same year, he got his computer science degree.
The serendipity and creative sparks that spawned Ruby on Rails and propelled Hansson to stardom wouldn’t have happened if he was coding in a vacuum. He built his skills while pursuing something fun — a web site devoted to video games — and only later did that develop into what we’d consider an exemplary coding career.
If you took a snapshot of my life today…
You’d see the owner of a small, agile web development firm who spends a good portion of his day immersed in code. You might guess that I had a helping hand from a prescient guidance counselor or that I stood on the shoulders of a reputable engineering school and an active alumni network.
In fact, I just really love games.
My favorite as a kid was SimCity 2000. I vividly remember the pure joy and exhilaration the first time I played it, at a friend’s house in what must have been fourth grade. I devoured strategy guides and collected every available offshoot and variation — SimFarm, SimTower, SimEarth. You name it, I simulated it.
One day, my Sims started slowing down. My computer was short on RAM, and as an intrepid urban planner, I had to figure out how to get things moving at top speed. Nobody in my family knew the first thing about what to do next. My dad and I ended up going to a computer show at the local fairgrounds and obtaining our best guess at the right memory chips. I unscrewed the case of my Intel 486 and was presented, for the first time, with a computer’s motherboard, ready for the hacking.
The operation was a success. My game kicked ass again. A computer programmer was born.
In the ensuing years, my love of computer games — in other words, play — led me to game-creation tools like Klik & Play (from the creators of SimCity), a simple but extraordinary application that allowed me to create logic, animations, sounds and sequences and string them together into cohesive games. One of my friends, a fellow sixth-grader and Klik & Play enthusiast, introduced me to HTML, and I was off to the web development races.
Years later, my first business — unless you count mowing lawns — was a PlayStation 2 news and reviews web site. It quickly grew in popularity, to the point where I was selling $1,000 a month in ads as a teenager in 2001, and it inspired me to expand my horizons, learn ASP, and build my own rudimentary content management system, long before the days of WordPress. That experience, more than any class or cajoling to find my calling, was the seed of a successful technology career.
Add up all those seemingly isolated experiences of play — each one pushing me to learn something new or accomplish something I’d never considered before — and you arrive at a deep understanding of computers and code, which you can parlay into a job that makes work feel surprisingly like play.
Today, there are fewer things kids can deconstruct, rebuild and enjoy.
Today’s devices are so streamlined, and have such a beautiful and impenetrable presentation layer, that they almost don’t seem like computers at all. When was the last time you cracked open your iPhone and added more RAM, awakening you to a passion for computer repair?
The Genius Bar makes life easier. It also makes it harder for kids to be directly exposed to computers and code.
As a hobbyist web programmer in my teens, I spent my days deep in command line and textual markup code. I remember the first time I dreamed in HTML. Today, you can publish far superior web-based content for thousands or millions of people to see — on Facebook, on Twitter, from pretty much any device, even from your TV — without coming anywhere close to a character of code. That reduces the learning curve, for sure. The problem is that the learning curve is the whole point, and without it, we have kids who use computers all day but never become computer-savvy.
There’s no easy answer to this question — we can’t exactly tell Apple or Facebook to make their products harder to use. But we can encourage our kids to get under the hood, break shit, and try to put it back together. And whether or not we’re coders ourselves, we can get in on the fun.
To inspire innovation, bring the Chocolate Factory to life.
Before my son was born, a friend recommended Brain Rules for Baby, a book written by a neuroscientist that gives parents a scientific look at the cognition of newborns and toddlers. The author draws a brilliant metaphor, likening the ideal playroom to a real-life Chocolate Factory:
“A place for drawing. A place for painting. Musical instruments. A wardrobe hanging with costumes. Blocks. Picture books. Tubes and gears. Anything where a child can be safely let loose, joyously free to explore whatever catches her fancy. A totally explorable, non-linear ecology.”
I can’t imagine a better framework for an environment that inspires a teen to learn how to code. By cultivating excitement, passion, art and fun, we create a compelling, self-directed reason to learn and a drive to create something new and cool. That’s when you crack open the books and dive into the details, pick a language and start writing code. Maybe it’ll be HTML, Objective C or Ruby on Rails. Maybe it’ll be something totally new, dreamed up for the first time by your gamer, your musician, your imaginative kid.