CoderDojo: A Library Program Review

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -George Bernard Shaw

CoderDojo Brisbane is a free computer programming club for children held at 7 Brisbane City Council libraries.  It is sponsored by Brisbane Marketing, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Brisbane City Council as part of the Digital Brisbane Strategy.  Dojos are held on Saturday mornings for 2 to 3 hours for 6-week term blocks.  Securing a spot in a Dojo is highly sought after with all places filled soon after registration opens.  The Dojos are run by volunteers, called mentors, most of whom work or study in IT and have a passion for sharing their coding skills with kids.  Participants are known as ninjas and they can range in age from 7 to 17 years of age, with the average age being 10 years.  Ninjas need to bring their own laptop with coding software already downloaded prior to the session.  The library provides the space, furniture, power and WiFi.

CoderDojo provides a relaxed environment for young people to explore coding with appealing software like Scratch, Hopscotch, Alice and Python.  The set-up is unlike a classroom.  Children lead the learning and are encouraged to experiment and share ideas.  Co-founder of CoderDojo, Bill Liao calls it “play-degogy”, based on the belief that children learn best through play.  

2881823606_8bcef3b113_o   Photo by andresmh / CC BY

In the session I observed, ninjas were exploring Scratch and Tinkercad.  Scratch (see picture above) is coding software suitable for beginners in which labelled building blocks are dragged and dropped together to create a program.  Tinkercad can be used to create 3D designs which can then be printed on a 3D printer, or be imported into Minecraft.  The lead mentor brought in a 3D-printed wheel and cart to show and invited the group to create their own design to import into Minecraft.  There was even a chance of having their creation printed out in 3D, the lucky ninja chosen by pulling his/her name tag out of a bag in the next session.  This got the attention of my teenage son who was looking disinterested.  He stood out from the group because he was much older.  He was already proficient at Scratch and hoped to learn more about HTML.  A friendly mentor, Gabriel,  had given him personal tutoring for a couple of previous sessions, but on that day, he was absent.  On a positive note, I’m pleased that he is interested in registering as a young mentor next term so that he can teach Scratch to his younger peers.  

So, why is it important to teach children to code?  The aim is not necessarily to produce computer programmers, although some may pursue this career path.  In an age where digital technologies are intricately linked to every aspect of our lives and we are saturated with information, learning to code cultivates information literacy.  James Whelton, the other founder of CoderDojo, said: “we need more creators and less users”.  By being creators, they take control of their digital experiences and gain an understanding of the inner-workings of what they encounter on screens everyday.  They progress from being passive users that interact with technology to becoming empowered digital citizens who can express themselves through technology.

What is more, children learn useful mathematical and design skills in the process of creating their projects.  Mitch Resnick, co-creator of Scratch, explains this in the Ted talk below along with showing some wonderful Scratch creations.

I was really impressed with CoderDojo.  It is a well-organised and popular library program where children can explore coding together under the guidance of enthusiastic IT experts free of charge.  One drawback though is that children who do not have a laptop are currently excluded, but there is a suggestion that computers onsite could be used for these children as the program grows.  And from my son’s perspective, the group was too young and other coding programs were not explored enough – Scratch was the main program used throughout the term, as a result, he was not engaged as he could have been.  But, maybe this is what he needed to motivate him to become a youth mentor in future.  We’ll see…