Computer coding: the generation game

Why leave the parents at home? New family coding workshops make learning an all-age affair

Yvonne Woods with Donncha Woods and Zoe Gogan-O’Brien take part in the OurKidsCode family workshop at the Dublin 7 Educate Together National School, Grangegorman, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

Yvonne Woods with Donncha Woods and Zoe Gogan-O’Brien take part in the OurKidsCode family workshop at the Dublin 7 Educate Together National School, Grangegorman, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Ten-year-old Daniel Hughes is pulling the wires, alligator clips and MakeyMakey board out of the box and firing up the laptop computer. His mother Lucy Hughes mulls over the instruction leaflet while she fingers the more old-tech materials of paper plates and aluminium foil.

They are playing to their strengths to complete the task they have been set – to use coding to create a dance mat. While he races ahead to the more fun, programmer’s job using Scratch, she is methodically following the step-by-step guide for the maker.

Daniel and Lucy are taking part in the piloting of an OurKidsCode (ourkidscode.ie) family workshop at the Dublin 7 Educate Together National School in Grangegorman, where Daniel is a pupil. Lucy has come along to try and understand a bit better what he has learnt so far at coding classes he attended elsewhere.

“I’ve seen him build the code but I don’t know how to do it,” she explains. “As they enter teenage years, it is good to keep abreast with what they’re up to.”

OurKidsCode is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and the National Parents’ Council (Primary), and they are fine-tuning the family workshops before starting to roll them out around the country. While there are widespread coding opportunities for children through organisations such as CoderDojo, what’s different about OurKidsCode is that the parents’ role goes way beyond just ferrying their children to and from the venue and sitting around while waiting for them to finish.

“It seemed like a missed opportunity when we know how important parents’ involvement is to children’s learning,” says Áine Lynch, chief executive of the NPC. “Parents often ask how do they get involved and this is one practical way of doing it.”

Joanne Mullan with Conn and Meabh Butler attending the workshop at the Educate Together National School. Photograph: Alan Betson
Joanne Mullan with Conn and Meabh Butler attending the workshop at the Educate Together National School. Photograph: Alan Betson

Coding is an area where children and parents are often at the same stage of learning, which is very unusual, Lynch points out. So that is why, when Trinity College’s School of Computer Science approached them with the idea, the NPC were happy to come on board. Science Foundation Ireland has funded the development of the workshops and the instruction for the NPC training team in how to deliver them. Negotiations are ongoing to find further funding to start bringing them around the country.

Assistant professor at Trinity’s School of Computer Science and Statistics, Nina Bresnihan says OurKidsCode builds on existing outreach programmes that its Centre for Research in IT Education has devised for secondary-school students. There were two reasons they wanted to get families involved in this one.

Huge interest

Firstly, there has been a huge interest in the teaching of computing and coding in recent years and in schools in particular. The new Leaving Certificate subject of computer science started on a pilot basis in 40 schools in September and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is investigating how to bring coding into primary schools.

Secondly, echoing Lynch’s comments, she refers to research showing parental involvement in education is really important to children’s outcomes, “particularly that the earlier that this happens the better, which is why we went for primary school level on this one”. It has also been shown that if you have interventions that “actually go out and get parents involved, they work – parents do get involved”.

When negativity so often characterises conversations about children and technology, both the School of Computer Science and the NPC are keen to promote this positive idea of computing. Bresnihan says they are not suggesting that bullying and screen-time problems are not an issue but “it is nice to have the other side as well. Also, empowering parents and getting them to be more comfortable with technology gives them more control over those areas as well.”

With children and the internet, “we are always taking about avoiding risks and dangers,” agrees Lynch. “We are not talking about [that] if we give children more opportunities to be creative with technology, they are less likely to be passive consumers of what’s there. Engaging children in these kinds of activities is really opening the world of technology to them, not just watching YouTube, surfing the internet or gaming.”

Indeed, it is just as well the workshop didn’t try to decamp here in the Dublin 7 school the day before because it had been deemed “Digital Detox Day”, as a hand-written poster on the wall informs us.

Justyna Gudaniec, who is here with Adele (11), Keira (11), six-year-old Sean and four-year-old pre-schooler Kaia, says they tried to observe that “detox” at home too. The children didn’t watch any screens and instead they were kept busy with arts and crafts, while their mother looked at her phone on the sly – only when absolutely necessary of course.

 Gudaniec has come to the workshop because she knows the children are interested in computers and have done a little coding with their father.

“But I wouldn’t be so great,” she says. Although Keira at one stage retreats to the corner to play with putty instead, the family group comes together in the end to create the dance mat. Adele ensures theirs is the prettiest in the room by using the supplied decorative materials to embellish the paper plates with hand-drawn flowers.

Arts and crafts element

The incorporating of an arts and crafts element is important, says Lynch, because it means a member of the family who might not have an interest in technology still has a role to play. When looking for opportunities for family learning, try to find things that will fit in around it to suit everybody’s interest, she suggests, rather than forcing children to do something they don’t want to do.

The aim of these creative computing workshops is to motivate the participating parents and children to set up a club themselves to continue the collaboration. Bresnihan says they are hoping to get more funding to extend the one or two workshops to a set of four weekly sessions, which would not only help families to become more familiar with computing but the longer time spent as a group should increase the likelihood of them wanting to keep meeting.

The “light touch” facilitation – as demonstrated by Bresnihan and her colleagues Glenn Strong and Richard Millwood at the workshop – is an approach that took quite a while to devise, says Lynch. If you go in with a detailed PowerPoint presentation, “you have left them with nothing to do on their own”, she points out.

Instead, materials and instruction cards are supplied, with minimal spoken explanations and families are left to figure it out. While at first glance the step-by-step guides may seem daunting to those who have never done coding, “if in doubt, read the instructions”, laughs Aideen Kenny as she gets stuck in with her son Michael Duke (11), who has used Scratch before.

Coding teaches not only critical thinking but also problem-solving and these workshops give families the opportunity to work together to overcome challenges.

“Obviously coding is important, particularly for the children,” says Lynch, “but I think the other learning and relationship building that is happening around that is equally important.” In this kind of scenario, children can see themselves as competent in front of their parents, she points out.

If only the reverse were true. As one father remarks on hearing of the workshops: “I’m not sure I’d be bothered about going to a coding lesson with the kids. They embarrass me enough in private with technology – why broadcast it?”

At the workshop’s “debriefing” evaluation, Millwood asks the parents if they felt they needed their children at their side to help out and there are murmurs of assent all around. But on asking the children the same about their parents, there’s silence, before one or two concede that their elders, if not betters, had their uses.

In reality, it is clear to this observer that the whole of the parent-child combination is greater than the sum of its parts. The push-tug between the generations keeps the momentum going.

Lucy and Daniel Hughes attending the OurKidsCode family workshop.
Lucy and Daniel Hughes attending the OurKidsCode family workshop.

“We got there,” says Lucy with evident satisfaction as she watches Daniel stepping out a sequence on the connected paper plates labelled A, B, D, E, G to produce a tune on the laptop. “Thankfully he knew how to work the computer.”

One thing the workshop has shown her, she adds during the evaluation, is that using devices doesn’t have to be an independent pursuit as is typical in many households – “you can do this together”.

Would they do this again as a family, Millwood asks the whole group. First to reply with great enthusiasm is eight-year-old Donncha Woods who’s here with his sister Sive (11) and their mother Yvonne: “Definitely.”

Six tasks to tackle en famille

Learning together as a family is about more than acquiring a new skill. It can bolster relationship-building, problem-solving, delegation and negotiation. Here are a few ideas for taking an all-age approach to recreation and education combined.

Cooking

If you’re doing this at home, pick a recipe that’s new to you as parents, so all of you will have a sense of doing something for the first time. Share the tasks according to capabilities and interests. For some professional guidance, find a cookery school that offers one-day, or more, courses to give families a taste of working together.

One of these is Lismullin School of Culinary and Home Arts (meathcookeryschool.com), which is running a Family Fun Cook Day on December 1st, and also on March 2nd and May 18th in 2019. Chefs demonstrate the creation of a three-course meal and then work alongside families as they prepare the same dishes, to be eaten together at the end.

Surfing

Learning to catch a wave with a surf board is a great leveller for all ages and abilities, according to Billy Butler of the Freedom Surf School (freedomsurfschool.com) in Tramore, Co Waterford.

 It is a winter sport, he stresses, and with the advancements in wet-suit technology, he confidently adds that at this time of year “people on the beach are colder than those in the water”.

As with various other surf schools, private family lessons can be booked but here you can opt to have instruction through English or as Gaeilge – so you can make it an oral language session while you’re at it.

Adventure activities

First-time attempts at adventure activities such as kayaking, mountain-biking, zip-lining and high ropes are ideal character-forming experiences for families.

The Delphi Resort (delphiadventureresort.com) in Connemara offers multi-activity family breaks, which means that hopefully everybody in the family will discover at least one pursuit that they particularly like over the course of a few days. Or take a day trip to an adventure park such as those run by Zipit (zipit.ie) in Tibradden Wood, Dublin; Farran Park, Cork; and Lough Key, Roscommon.

Art

For something gentler and indoors, most of the public art galleries offer family workshops at the weekends and/or during school holidays. They are usually free and drop-in so no forward planning or finance is required.

The National Gallery (nationalgallery.ie) on Merrion Square in Dublin has a free creative workshop most Sundays (11.30am-1.30pm) with a family-friendly tour of some of its collection starting at 12.30pm.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (imma.ie) in Kilmainham, Dublin, has the Explorer programme each Sunday from 2pm-4pm, until December 2nd, which offers families the chance to be creative together by exploring artworks with Imma staff and then participating in a hands-on workshop.

In Cork, the Crawford Art Gallery runs a free family art workshop at 2pm every Sunday and there is also a free tour at 2pm.

Yoga

All-age yoga is both a physically and mentally enhancing way for families to learn and bond. Tanja Thomas (yogawithtanja.eu) runs family yoga classes both at Barefoot in Lucan, Co Dublin, and at Om Yoga on Blackhorse Avenue, Dublin 7.

It’s a chance for parents “to let loose” in a playful setting, she says, where the whole family can breathe, think, stretch and listen to stories together. There’s no reason not to make it a three-generation affair and invite along a grandparent or two.

Horse-riding

Age is immaterial once you’re in the saddle – it’s just the getting up into it that tends to sort the agile from the aged.

There are plenty of riding centres around the country that offer lessons or hacks for all the family on suitably sized and sensible steeds. Find one near you on the website of the Association of Irish Riding Establishments (aire.ie).

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