By Vikki Ortiz Healy
Eight-year-old Claire Dormanen assumed her role as a summer camper this month in many traditional ways: She wore a comfy T-shirt and shorts, scarfed down a sack lunch and ran frantically to escape elimination during a game of dodgeball.
But Claire also added a new activity to her regular camp schedule this year: computer coding. For three hours on a recent Friday, campers built creatures out of Legos and then wrote computer programs to make them move.
“This is where the world is going,” said Claire’s mother, Audrey Dormanen, of Oak Park, Ill., who enrolled her daughter in the full day sports/coding combination camp at Code Play Learn, an Oak Park business. “It’s embracing technology and embracing what’s going to be core to your life.”
Coding, once reserved for students aspiring to work in the tech industry, has gone mainstream this summer across the Chicago area as several traditional camps have added lessons in computer programming as a new option next to arts and crafts, soccer and rock climbing.
Camp directors say including coding in traditional summer programs gives students much-needed exposure to digital concepts, while meeting demand from parents eager to expose their children to the latest technology and potential careers in the STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematical, fields.
“So many people are so excited about it, it’s like the first thing they ask about on an inquiry call,” said Sara Ferguson, director of the River Forest site for Steve and Kate’s Camp, which added coding studios to all five of its locations across the Chicago area this summer.
But some parenting and digital experts question the push to teach young children coding, at schools and particularly over the summer. They argue that such highly technical lessons are unnecessary at early ages, and that the upcoming generation of kids are already digital natives, even without giving up carefree days in the sun.
“For me, the idea of having kids coding at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old is just absurd,” said Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco and author of “Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.” “Time spent coding is time not spent playing, which is far more important for creativity, social interaction, and development of motor and social skills.”
The movement to teach computer coding to children has gained momentum in recent years. In December, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a partnership with Code.org, Google and other tech leaders to expand computer-science offerings from kindergarten through high school, beginning with 46 CPS schools this fall.
Celebrities from pop star Shakira to race car driver JR Hildebrand have done video spots urging the public to try coding through online tutorials available at Code.org, a nonprofit backed by the tech industry with the goal of expanding computer-science participation.
Proponents argue that children should learn coding for several reasons. Professions from anthropology to zoology are increasingly becoming information fields, so the ability to program a computer for use within a discipline becomes an advantage, said Ed Lazowska, Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.
Lazowska also points to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that say 71 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields in the next decade will be in computer science.
And even if students never go into the technology fields, those who learn to code also learn “computational thinking”, the ability to analyze problems and debug, among other skills which are valuable in many settings, Lazowska said.
“It’s not that kids should be learning this because they want to be going to work at Google and Microsoft and Facebook,” Lazowska said. “It’s rather because computational thinking is a critical reasoning capability, and programming is how we teach it and how you learn it.”
But John C. Dvorak, technology columnist for PC Magazine, worries that coding has been so overpromoted that parents feel unnecessary pressure to push their children into learning skills they probably would pick up organically.
“The kids are immersed in technology on a day-to-day basis. How much more do they have to learn?” Dvorak asked. “The parents are projecting their own inadequacies and their fears onto the kids, who are very casual about all this.”
Coding at camp
In Oak Park, William Lerner, left, and William Kaegi build Lego critters that’ll move with the aid of computer programs. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)
Within weeks after Wil Greenwald, owner of Code Play Learn, introduced weeklong Code/Sports summer camps for kindergartners through sixth-graders, nearly all 70 available spots were filled.
For one-half of the day, students at the camp build computerized boats, giant cranes and dancing birds while learning about loops, if-then statements and other aspects of coding that Greenwald believes will stay relevant in the evolving field.
After lunch, campers fill up water bottles, fasten their sneakers and spend the afternoon playing soccer, dodgeball, elimination hand hockey and other fast-paced games.
Greenwald said moms and dads “want their kids to be active, mentally and physically. For the parents, it just really checks off a variety of boxes for them.”
Dormanen, the Oak Park mother of two who works in digital advertising, said she signed up her two girls for the combination camp not because she wanted them immersed in technology, but rather because they were interested in it.
“I would in no way say we’re early adopters,” Dormanen said. “The kids are.”
At Steve and Kate camps, developers worked for months to create coding studios introduced to campers at 40 locations across the U.S. this summer. At any time of the day, campers can head to a classroom equipped with iPads to play a video game that teaches coding or use a program to develop their own apps. Apps created by campers can then be published to their parents’ cellphones, said Ben Chun, who developed the software used in the coding studios at Steve and Kate camps.
By offering coding alongside bread-making, dance, water slides and music, the camp is able to provide valuable technological lessons without the complicated process that comes with changing school curriculum, Chun added.
“It’s not so easy for a board of education to just say, ‘Now we’re going to do this,'” he said. “Summer camp is an area where you can move quickly.”
Betty Hintch was pleasantly surprised when the email arrived explaining that her 9-year-old son, Mateo, would have the chance to learn coding this summer at the Steve and Kate’s Mount Prospect camp.
Hintch said she could understand why the parents of children who are always behind a computer might take issue with coding at camp. But for Mateo, who aspires to be a professional basketball player, a little exposure to technology among sports and other activities couldn’t hurt, she said.
“He’s going to assume it’s just fun and free play, but they’re getting some sort of instruction snuck in there with all the fun stuff,” Hintch said. “It’s a great balance, it’s really a good thing.”