4 November 2015

Can This Adorable Bedtime Storybook Make Toddlers Want To Code?

President Obama's been pushing America to learn coding. So what better time to start kids on that path than when they first learn to read?


With adorable monsters and a diverse cast, The Wonderful World of Creatures and Code wants to be your kid’s first storybook introduction to the most common code phrases and concepts of computer programming.


Amie Pascal and Heather Petrocelli were going to a programmer friend’s young son’s birthday party back in 2013 and they wanted to get him a coding storybook that would explain what his dad does for a living. Much to their dismay, a Baby's First Book of Code didn’t exist—so they started making one on their own. The result, The Wonderful World of Creatures and Code (WWoCC), is live on Kickstarter and on track to be fully funded.



Other books exist that aim to teach young children about coding essentials, but the rare few that exist are aimed at older kids. Probably the best-known example, thewildly-successful-on-Kickstarter Hello Ruby, is a chapter book that is likely too difficult for kids younger than six.


For kids a little older, there are online coding courses aimed directly at children. Some are for specific languages, like KidsRuby, which teaches the Ruby language and works with microcomputer Raspberry Pi, while others, like YouthDigital, teach specialized coding applications like using Java to create Minecraft mods or how to build mobile apps. There are extensive lists of online coding courses and educational games for kids to tinker with coding once they've gotten bit by the programming bug—but none of these really suit the introductory 0-7 level that WWoCC is going for.


Pascal and Petrocelli, meanwhile, wanted a classic children’s storybook, a tangible thing for kids just stringing together sentences, and artist Jason Heglund brings a goofy vibrance that lushly illustrates coding's more abstract concepts.


To make WWoCC more like a Little Golden Book for coding, the book is a cutesy, rhyming A-Z storybook. Its 26 entries include HTML tags along with coding/computer mainstays like GIFs, Javascript, and keyboards. The authors chose HTML as an easy entry point—a markup language that sees instant results on a platform (websites) that every kid is familiar with.


And every adult. Older folks have similar unfamiliarity with coding, so the book doesn’t really have an "ideal age."


"I’m saying it’s for kids 0-7, but my mom’s 67 and she needs this book," says Petrocelli. "We’re just translating for people. Coding feels like magic, it’s both a delight and a mystery."


Instructing kids in abstract ideas like "block of code + computer = website" is difficult to introduce to any human, no matter their age, but Pascal and Petrocelli aren’t worried that kids will be too young to make the connection. Just look, says Pascal, at how kids navigate touchscreen user interfaces on tablets and phones better than their parents.


The authors don’t believe there is a "minimum age" where kids won’t understand the concepts of code. The point with any children's instruction is to teach ahead of their level so they grow to understand greater concepts. The authors paired the abstract complexity of code elements alongside a traditional A-to-Z format and rhyming text to make it, the authors hope, as accessible to young readers as any other storybook.


"It creates a connection to something they’re already exposed to at the same age," says Pascal. "Part of it is drawing them into a world that they want to be in, wanting to make sure you tie a complex topic like coding into something kids want to be a part of, that’s also playful and whimsical fun that kids can relate to. But it’s also important to portray a diverse world with kids. Diversity is a big issue in the tech industry. As a kid, if you don’t see yourself in that tech world, maybe you don’t see yourself getting into it."


The authors don’t expect that kids will finish the 30-page book and go to the computer to start coding. WWoCC is about laying down coding concepts for kids to comprehend earlier and imagine the potential for creating with code.


In the spirit of planting more seeds, Pascal and Petrocelli decided against a digital edition of the book, which might have enabled all the fun bells and whistles of web-linked footnotes or animations. Their goal is to get WWoCC in the hands of more kids, especially the less affluent and those without access to computers.


"We want to donate as many copies as we can to libraries so we can get [the book] into the hands of kids who might have barriers to learning code on computers," says Petrocelli. "Familiarity and access to knowledge is a huge deal."