To C++ or not to C++: Are coding classes for kids a good idea?

There have been concerns about the potential negative impact of these classes on children if introduced before a certain age.
Student sitting for online class
Student sitting for online class
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Until very recently, if you were a parent who went online, it is highly likely you would have been bombarded with ads that claimed to make your kid the next Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs by way of online coding classes. These ads have also claimed that children will get lucrative employment opportunities, among other things, and classes start for children as young as six years old. 

Platforms such as WhiteHat Jr, Campk12, Captaincoder and Coding Ninjas offer a variety of such courses for children, but there have been concerns about potential negative impact on children if introduced before a certain age. While practices of companies in their quest for sales does raise eyebrows, a question that remains is what makes parents seek out coding classes, and if this is the right way to go when it comes to providing them with extra skill sets. 

Eleven-year-old Jessie* had her plate full with weekly ballet classes and badminton sessions before the lockdown, which was also an opportunity where she could meet and mingle with people her own age. However, this stopped thanks to the lockdown, and made her restless and kept her in low spirits. 

“My daughter is an only child and this is how she got friends and had people her own age to interact with. She used to go for ballet, piano and badminton classes before the lockdown shut them all down,” her mother Riya* told TNM. While looking for things to do, Jessie spotted ads about coding classes and asked her parents if she could try them out. Riya and her husband then booked a few demo classes for Jessie to try out and let her pick the platform she wanted to take the classes from. 

Parents expectations

For Riya, expectations from these classes are clear — she's not expecting money or fame, but hopes coding can help her daughter look at problems logically. “She finds it interesting,” Riya says, and adds that Jessie can pursue it seriously when she is older, if she wants to. 

The hope that introducing younger children to coding will promote logical thinking is an oft-heard refrain from parents. Some basic principles of coding are centred around reducing repetition and looking for the easiest way to solve a given problem. This, parents feel, will be useful to teach life skills.

Shailaja Singh, the parent of nine-year-old Sachin, tells TNM that apart from logical thinking, she wanted her son to reduce the amount of time he played video games throughout the day. “I enrolled my son because at least for that one hour, he will not play video games and do something productive. However, I think he has taken interest in it and is now browsing websites and coding platforms on his own,” she says

Shailaja’s 15-year-old daughter also attended coding classes when she was younger, but in-person. However, she too doesn’t expect them to use it in the future. “I was concerned about the amount of time he spent playing and the possibility of him developing logical thinking towards problems. What he or my daughter will grow up to be is not in my hands,” she says. 

The recent surge

BS Rishikesh, Associate Professor in Azim Premji University’s School of Education told TNM that the interest in and demand for coding classes aren't going to wane anytime soon. However, he warned that it is important to introduce it at the right age, and says that it should not be before Class 5 or Class 6.  

“Like the mistakes we have made on other things, including getting children to begin writing at the pre-primary stage itself, coding should not be introduced any earlier than higher primary classes or grade six. In fact, in our government schools it may have to be introduced in high school as the availability of computers is higher than at the elementary level,” he points out. 

He adds that it is imperative to ensure that the student has certain basic or foundational aspects in place before they are introduced to coding. He says that coding will be an important skill to possess, and that it is “closely connected to other skills such as logical thinking”.

Catching them young?

While the ads to make the child the next big tech icon were on for a long time, educationists are not sold on the idea. 

Sneha, an education consultant working in curriculum design, implementation and training says catching them young makes sense if, as a parent, one is helping their child make an informed decision and the choice is being made by the student to learn coding.

“A lot of these programs message their courses as a gateway to bag jobs and internships at reputed tech companies, thereby putting the peer pressure on parents that they're not doing enough to ensure that their kids are ahead in the rat race,” she says. 

She also points out that these programs should actually help students develop and apply the problem-solving and logical thinking skills in real life. “There's also not much of a point if these don’t happen in real life. What then is the difference between rote learning that many of us did in school and learning coding online?” she asks. 

Negative impact

LinkedIn user Neha Jain wrote about how her nine-year-old child has been attending coding lessons through WhiteHat Jr for the five months and how it has negatively impacted the mental health of her son. 

“The assigned teacher called herself a child psychiatrist. She played with my child's mindset, was very rude to him,” she wrote. The post saw scores of comments, in which some users wrote they enrolled their young children in coding lessons online as they were tempted by the claims made by the companies offering these classes. Users also pointed out the peer pressure existing between parents and children, which pushes them to enrol their children in the classes. 

Chennai-based clinical psychologist Dr Vandhana who works with parents, children and early adolescents says that it is too early to comment on the impact it creates on the child’s cognitive development, but she says that starting it below 11 years of age could potentially be problematic.

“There is a stage in a child’s development process when they go through the cognitive development process. According to me, the ideal age for a child to start coding classes would be 11.5 or 12 years old, because only in that age a child’s concrete ability to focus on abstract reasoning develops. Prior to that it is definitely a little problematic and could exert pressure on a child’s cognitive development,” she says. 

She adds that parental pressure and peer pressure among the children could be the driving force to enroll in these classes. “I would actually say that a good share of this is because of parental pressure and their expectations from their children. Parents want to give the best for their children and some parents also see this as a compensatory mechanism, they want to enrol their children at a very young age,” she explained. 

Pointing out that a major chunk of children’s education these days happen online due to the pandemic and that they already spend a lot of time in front of the screens, she says that children should be involved in games that are not on a gadget. 

“In coding, the bottomline that is being said is that the child develops problem-solving and abstract reasoning skills and these are definitely developed by involving and engaging in our traditional games also. So, I think we can focus on these games and later on decide to shift the focus to online coding,” she adds. 

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