During the recent summer holidays schoolgirl Oona Perna found the perfect way to fill the long days.
With her feet tucked under the chair, as she sat at the family’s dining room table, the 11-year-old would tap away at her computer keyboard writing line after line of code.
Sometimes her face would scrunch with confusion, other times it was etched with concentration. Then there would be the endless times she would smile widely to herself, when she’d finally created a new game for her to play.
Like so many children these days, Oona’s has embraced the amazing world of coding.
Her journey began two years ago after she grew tired of playing the popular online kids’ game Roblox and wanted to try making her own.
‘I had a lot of ideas of what would be a really nice game,’ she says. ‘I’ve been creating them ever since, through finding and copying codes from existing games.
‘My best one, I’ve been working on for a really long time, is a drinking simulator. I created a shop and every time you get more money, you can buy different flavoured juices.’
In 2014, aware of our ever-evolving digital world, the Government set out an ambitious plan to get young children into coding, by making computing a compulsory subject for children from five to 16 in state schools.
For many experts, it was also key that the myth of coding being just about playing mindlessly on a phone was busted, with the reality being it gives children a skill and set of tools that could set them up for life.
Not even a decade later, thousands of kids now grasp both the basics and intricacies of coding – despite the fact that many have yet to learn to tie their shoe laces or are allowed to travel to school alone.
‘I work with children as young as three-year-olds on coding skills,’ says Richard Smith, of Amazing ICT, an organisation that focusses on STEM learning. ‘They wouldn’t write down any code, but they would put some digital blocks in the correct order to make the robot go around a track.’
Richard is a firm believer in starting kids young when it comes to coding. ‘You’ve got to engage them very early if you want them to develop confidence and skill,’ he explains. ‘It’s no use them going to secondary school and the teacher expecting them to do advanced coding if they haven’t had the background from an early age.’
Oona’s mum Milla says it clear that her daughter has great skill and passion for coding.
‘The stuff she can do and create – my mind will never understand in this life,’ she says. ‘I find it fascinating that she can learn something so easily.’
However, Milla adds that she’s also set firm boundaries in place to ensure her daughter’s life doesn’t revolve around it.
‘She does a lot of gymnastics and when we go on holidays, we don’t take computers,’ she explains. ‘We have a strict policy that I can see at any time what she is working on. I’ve learned a little bit about coding to understand that if the process is broken, then it’s hard to start that again. So I just allow her that consistent time so that she can get it working.’
For Milla, the only downside of her daughter’s coding is the necessity of another computer. ‘Oona is saving for a gaming laptop because she’s in a place that she can’t progress from because we don’t have a powerful enough device.’
She’s certainly not alone in her hobby either.
‘When I see my friends or after school when I call them, we do a lot of coding,’ Oona says. ‘It’s interesting, challenging, and fun. It’s like having your dream game come true.’
In fact, children across are making headlines with their amazing coding work.
In 2019, 10-year-old Samaira Mehta caught the eye of Google and received praise from the White House, after the coder created a game to ‘empower girls and boys to learn code and become leaders in tech’.
Meanwhile, Nigerian tech genius Emmanuella Mayaki was hired as an after-school coding club teacher at a UK school last year, when she was also just 10.
Just this year, six-year-old Kautilya Katariya from India set a new Guinness World Record for completing IBM’s AI certification, landing him the esteemed title of the world’s youngest coder.
Here in the UK, 13-year-old Ansh tells us that when he first discovered coding at school, he decided to take matters into his own hands to make sure he picked up as much as possible.
‘I used online tutorials and then I got classes,’ says the schoolboy. Now he keeps up with new developments ‘by regularly checking technological news and what is popular on the internet’.
Ansh adds that if he could give any fellow young coder advice it would be: ‘to understand the code you write or copy when you start as that will make you a better coder and help you in the future.’
The schoolboy also says that one of the most fun parts of coding is watching the finished product – something 14-year-old Danielle Shonola agrees with, saying ‘it’s when you get to run the project and see how well you have worked and the result of your code in action.’
The schoolgirl first started coding at 11, however it was when she went to secondary school that she really got into it. ‘I remember were doing a Scratch project that was really interesting,’ she explains. ‘I thought I needed to know more so I joined a Yaizy Pithon Coding Course and it has really helped me to learn and allowed me to work at my own pace.’
Even though she finds it challenging when she ‘gets a syntax error and has to figure out how to fix it’, Daniella says she would recommend coding to any kid who would suggest to any child interested in coding to get involved. ‘It might look challenging from the outside, but once you’re in, it’s a different experience altogether,’ she says.
‘It will require some hard work, but it all pays off in the end. The joy of success that comes with seeing the result of your effort is unexplainable.’
However, while kids may be buzzing about the increased amount of screen time that coding allows, parents are often understandably concerned about what this could do to their physical and emotional wellbeing.
‘To be a well-rounded computer user, you have to have good social skills as well,’ adds Richard. ‘Some of the work I do in school would be the kids sitting around and actually coming up with some creative ideas for a game or app. I have three children myself, and as a parent, I think we have to provide balanced for our kids. We want to develop our kids’ self-esteem – developing their own computer game may be great for that.’
As part of his work in schools, Richard welcomes parents in for training evenings, where he helps parents understand the coding their children are showing interest in and addresses their concerns regarding cyber security.
‘There’s no easy answer to keeping kids safe online,’ he says. ‘Parents just have to show an interest in what their children are doing. Parents often expect me to give them a magic formula, but it’s not like that. You’ve just got to be very aware of the dangers yourself and talk to your children about how everyone online is not who they say they are.’
12-year-old Jaeden Davison already has his sights set on a career in coding, saying that he wants to be a ‘game developer or an engineer’ when he grows up.
‘I am already a game developer, the next step is just making money from doing the things I love,’ he explains. ‘I will still need to go to University in order to get qualified as an engineer – but that’s OK because it keeps me interested in school and trying hard.’
However it’s not totally surprising as his mum, Elizabeth is the CEO and founder of Cypher, a coding school for children. Even so, she does admit her son’s skills are pretty inspiring.
‘Jaeden’s level of coding is extremely impressive and it instils a confidence in me that he’s preparing himself for his future,’ she says.
‘So many jobs nowadays are reliant on these skills. By introducing and developing them from such a young age, he’s been able to maximise the amount of time spent to develop a real talent. Obviously I’m thrilled that he shares the same passions that I do, too!’
So much so that Elizabeth has also got him involved in work at her coding school.
Jaeden, who ended up as the go-to tech guy while at primary school, explains, ‘I helped out with her business from a really young age using code to hack one of my teddies when I was five – making it come alive – to creating my own website when I was seven. I’ve done it ever since as it’s a huge part of our life at home too.’
Since then, he’s also set up a Minecraft server for the club, a Discord server for his mum and her colleagues to chat on while working online and even branched out into the world of social media.
‘ I’ve helped her team out creating Tik-Tok posts with their videos and used an algorithm to determine which hashtags would get the most views,’ he explains. ‘I got them over 15,000 views in one week which was cool.’
According to Howard Lee-Smith, owner of Code Ninjas, it’s paramount that parents become more aware of the power of coding – something he believes is a ‘vital skill’ for children to have.
‘They often express to us that they are alarmed at the amount of time their child spends being consumed by technology,’ he explains. ‘So often their device is used for gaming or social interaction, and many would prefer – if they have to spend so much time plugged in – that it is used more constructively, to learn.
‘Schools do their best to deliver what is expected of them by the National Curriculum, but coding is a field parents often feel is not consistently offered in an educational setting.’
‘In the digital age, coding and digital literacy is set to become a skill that employers consider crucial and will undoubtedly set people apart in the job market in the future,’ Howard adds. ‘It isn’t just learning a digital language to command machines but developing computational thinking abilities and using logic to solve problems creatively.’
Elizabeth agrees. ‘Throughout my own career and just by seeing the world we live in, I can see that coding has become so central to businesses across all sectors,’ she says.
‘Despite what people might think, teaching children to code won’t exclusively create a world of developers, but instead equip the next generation with vital skills they need for any career.
‘Tech is already taking a hold of many tasks that aren’t even career related, including AI, which is only set to develop further in the future,’ she adds. ‘It’s thrilling to know that Jaeden and his generation will be the ones to solve the world’s challenges we inevitably will face.’
September 13-19 is National Coding Week, an initiative run by volunteers to help adults and children learn digital skills. To find out more, click here