Programming. This word may bring to mind many things — high-tech computers, complex coding and (for me at least) a mysterious world of unintelligible languages. What it does not normally make me think of are 4-year-olds.
Brian Love and Nobuko Miwa, however, are on a mission to change this. The pair run Coding Lab Japan, which offers a curriculum inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to children ranging in age from 4 to 17.
The concept of Coding Lab was originally dreamed up in Singapore, with a founding establishment opening there around three years ago. Coding Lab Japan, which is owned by Miwa (and has the catchy motto: “Tiny hands, mega minds”) opened in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district last year and added a second campus in Shirokanedai this summer. It offers English language after-school and weekend coding courses as well as holiday camps.
“There’s this mystery and fear around programming that we want to dispel,” explains Love, a Tokyo-based American and former software engineer at Microsoft, where Miwa also used to work. “If kids at a young age are given the opportunity to program and use computers and devices, such as robots, this barrier can be removed. So later in life, even if they don’t become computer scientists, they will be more confident and fearless around computers and programming.”
The benefits, however, are not confined to computer literacy: self-confidence, problem solving, team play and creative thinking are among a raft of other qualities associated with coding, according to Love.
My two children — aged 4 and 6 — put this to the test recently by taking part in a weekend coding class at the Shirokanedai campus, a relaxed space housed on the seventh floor of an office building.
We hit our first obstacle before I even ring the bell, as I struggle to explain to my daughters what exactly they will be doing.
Four-year-old: “But mummy, what’s coating? Will they have cake?”
Me: “No cakes. Coding is making computer games and creating instructions.”
Four-year-old: “What’s krating structions?”
Me: “Um. Good question. Let’s ask Brian.”
Fortunately for us, Brian has all the answers. Friendly, relaxed — and clearly passionate about all things coding — Brian (full title: Coding Lab’s director of technology and education) quickly charms the children as he greets us in the entrance where we slip off our shoes.
We make our way into a sun-filled, office-like space, with curved tables and child-friendly flooring, where Brian gives each of my girls a tablet and causes a brief moment of consternation by asking: “Have you ever programmed computers before?”
Their silently blank faces answer his question — and the class commences. For children aged 4 to 6, classes are focused on a fun-packed application called ScratchJr (created by MIT), which enables them to create their own interactive stories and games using simple intuitive methods.
And so the girls, heads bent over their tablets, follow Brian’s enthusiastic instructions — from touching the first command (a green flag icon), saying “Hi” to the main protagonist (a cat) and learning how to move it a few paces from right to left.
The next hour passes quickly as the children build up the game — choosing a backdrop (an underwater scene) and other characters (a robot and an unusual-looking octopus creature among them) and even recording their voices.
They slowly but surely create a string of commands, culminating in the characters walking up to one another and speaking. Yes, even my 4-year-old created commands — quite a coup for a child who had been hoping to eat cake.
At the end of the session, my older daughter is invited to try out the next level: Scratch Beginner, which is used with children aged 7 and over in addition to a raft of other courses ranging from Lego Robotos & Scratch to Minecraft & Scratch. This steps things up a notch in a gadget-packed room with a large projector screen on the wall.
Here, my daughter sits proudly at a Grown Up Computer as Brian demonstrates the colorful potential of coding for kids — showing us a string of simple computer games and cartoons designed by students, and letting my daughter have a quick go too.
It’s an inspiring visit — not only for the kids but for me too. It’s apparent that coding not only has countless educational benefits, but it’s also an impressive creative outlet. It’s perhaps little surprise to later learn that Brian used to also teach English composition, poetry and film at a U.S. university.
But perhaps best of all? The kids clearly enjoyed their first ever experience of coding — and there wasn’t even any cake.
Four hour-long classes at Coding Lab Japan for children aged 4 to 6 cost ¥10,584. For more details on pricing, visit codinglab.jp/pricing. For dates of regular open-house days with free coding trials and holiday camp dates, visit codinglab.jp.