Insight from the founders of an innovative learn-to-code program.
COOL TOOLS | by Susan Dias Karnovsky
codeSpark Academy is quite possibly the number one learn-to-code program for kids four to ten. Over 20 million kids in 201 countries have used their award-winning app to learn and practice the ABCs of computer science.
The idea for the app sparked seven years ago when codeSpark co-founder Grant Hosworth’s four and six-year-old daughters asked him how computers work. He recalls, “I thought that was a pretty cool question for young kids to be asking about. So I went looking for an ABCs computer science book, but it didn’t exist. That was really surprising to me given that the world we live in is run by software.”
Grant started researching how young kids could learn computer science. “I found research from Tufts and MIT that shows you can teach kids as young as four about the logical thinking that’s behind computer science. I got more and more invested in this idea and ended up finding an awesome co-founder: Joe Shochet.”
Let Them Create
Joe was the perfect partner. He had worked at Disney for almost 13 years, building big successful kids’ experiences and had designed lots of other well-known games and projects. Plus, he had three kids. He’d taught all of them to code, and he was a Lego robotics coach for almost seven years. “Most of all”, Grant said “he is a really good guy! So it made it easy to join forces. We started the company in 2014.”
Grant continues, saying: “Joe intuitively understands the way to get kids excited about learning is to let them create the stories and games, and then they’re driven to learn more and be more sophisticated, not because they’re told to, but because they want to make cooler stuff. That’s the magic.”
‘The way to get kids excited about learning is to let them create the stories and games, and then they’re driven to learn more and be more sophisticated, not because they’re told to, but because they want to make cooler stuff. That’s the magic.’
Joe picks it up from there: “You would be amazed at how fast kindergartners are learning this technology. We get a lot of parents and teachers that say like, ‘I can’t follow this. How could a kindergartner possibly follow it?’ And it’s actually the complete opposite: The kindergartners are fearless with technology. They will smoke any of us adults in terms of getting it in play.”
Putting Concepts to Work
Their GameMaker was codeSpark’s first creative tool. This app allowed kids to put programming concepts to work. The kids use GameMaker to actually design and code video games. They can then play and remix their creations with other coders around the globe.
Grant adds, “What’s been super gratifying is that with our new Story Coder kids have the opportunity to control the emotions of the characters. We’re seeing them use these tools in ways that are a little bit unexpected! They’re telling emotionally rich stories that are quite personal to them and then sharing them with teachers and parents and friends. And it creates this feedback loop that’s really valuable for the kid: They feel like they’ve made something that is connecting with people, and then they want to do it more.”
Grant described the popular Story Coder’s characters and pets, known as Foos. There are many to choose from: “They are split up into good guys and bad guys. And there are tons of great female and male characters. But most importantly, you can create your own little Foos to use in your story. The Foo can look like a historical figure, or like you, a friend, your parents or whatever you want. And you have a choice of up to fourteen different animations for facial expressions with really easy-to-use commands that show you which facial expression will be made when you drag and drop that specific icon.. And the kids do use this at a high rate. They like being able to add that emotional element to the story.”
Visual Language, Progressive Sophistication
As for the coding itself? It’s easy for young kids to do because codeSpark Academy with the Foos uses its own unique visual coding language to break down every action into smaller parts. Each action is drawn as an animated icon, so it’s simple to understand what each icon does.
As kids move the Foos through progressively harder puzzles, they earn new icons which teach more sophisticated concepts, such as looping (repeating a pattern of action) and conditional “if/then” statements. It’s fun to use the icon to code the action and then watch the Foo do what you tell it to do! For example, Foos love to eat. Young coders can program a cook and fill orders based on the visual thought bubbles of their Foo customers.
You can watch the kids’ original stories online on codeSpark’s “Stories by Kids!” “Let’s Code!” and “Let’s Play!” all of which are hosted by codeSpark’s game designer Katie Powell. Katie adds her own personal magic to make the experience even richer for the kids. Her narration is light-hearted, natural and kid-friendly. Her tutorials are straightforward and she doesn’t talk down to the kids when she demonstrates how to code their original games and stories.
codeSpark’s partnership has kept this “let-the-kids-create-it concept” at the heart of their app since its early days. And codeSpark intends to bring that guiding principle with them into the future. Their company recently joined up with BEGiN’s HOMER, a large early learning program for ages 2-8. Together codeSpark and HOMER will be developing exciting new apps and curriculum for the 21st century.
I look forward to talking to codeSpark’s talented curriculum developers and designers as soon as they ignite their next exciting product!
Susan Dias Karnovsky is an educator, writer, and improvisational lyricist. She has written for licensed characters at Disney, Nickelodeon, Jim Henson’s Muppets, Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Sesame Workshop, where she was on staff. Her syndicated music segments for KIDS AMERICA were distributed by American Public Radio. Currently Susan is piloting her computational thinking curriculum, PLAY by PLAY for teachers, parents and kids. Teaching Artist credits include PD and student workshops at Berklee College of Music, Boston; The American Stage Theater, St. Pete; Boy & Girls Harbor, Harlem and Creative Action in Austin. Listen to Susan using computational thinking to make up songs—and cue 2:00 for her favorite song, “Dead Fish” on KIDS AMERICA: https://soundcloud.com/susandias