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Why Teaching Babies To Code Is Not That Different From Teaching Them To Speak

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What are some safe and fun ways to teach an infant core skills needed for programming?

I’m somewhat disappointed with how many people seem to dramatically underestimate the power of a baby’s brain. When I ask people on how to teach my child music, language, sports or math, no one loses their mind asking things like: “You are forcing him to be a linguist, mathematician, musician or ball players”, but when it comes to programming, people bring a completely different bias. There seems to be a visceral reaction to programming that music or sports or language doesn’t produce. This social bias must be fought against.

Have you ever seen an infant asking adults the instructions on how to use an iPad or the remote control? Kids naturally get that. Were you ever been curious how? And what goes in their minds? What more can they do?

Teach Your Kid To CodeFlickr (Gordon)

The window of a baby’s peak learning occurs extremely early in his life. They are not some empty boxes that can be left idle for 4 years and then hoped to be filled up in school. They are young seeds that must be constantly nurtured. The past few months I have been spending time on reading neuroscience research for infants and baby’s learning in general. Let me share some findings. To start with, here is a simple fact about a baby’s brain:

For the first few months, a baby in an English-speaking home can distinguish between the sounds of a foreign language. They loses this ability by the end of their first year: the language they hear at home has wired their brain for English.

In the first 3 years, a child’s brain has up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood. The excess of synapses produced by a child’s brain in the first 3 years makes the brain especially responsive to external input. During this period, the brain can “capture” experience more efficiently than it will be able to later

This was a “mind-blowing” realization to me. My infant has way more synapses than me and can far easily recognize foreign sounds than myself. The longer I wait to teach, the more the Synaptic pruning happens (body cuts off whatever synapses that are unused in the infant) making the learning all the more harder.

Teach Your Kid To CodeFlickr (Brad Flickinger)

Sure, we didn’t learn logic until we were 8 and learn programming until we were 12. That doesn’t mean that is the minimum age for that. It is a bit like my grandpa saying he didn’t use a phone until he was 20 and a tablet until he was 75. So what? Why should a baby’s learning by limited by his parent’s imagination?

Here is some more interesting research:

  1. Six-month-old babies can do basic math: Babies Are Born With Some Math Skills
  2. Seven-month-old babies can understand grammar and sentence order in multiple languages: Prosody cues word order in 7-month-old bilingual infants
  3. Very young infants can understand logic.

Programming is primarily a function of logic, math, grammar, instructions and communication. Infants acquire basics of all these skills in the first few months of their life. Thus, it is never too early to teach the foundations of programming. Of course, it has to be adapted to an infant and also realize that they implement the learning years after the learning happens (just as it happens in language).

Is This Forcing A Kid Into A Particular Career?
If you teach a kid language, are you forcing him into a career in linguistics? If you play ball with him are you forcing a sports career upon him? That would be silly. Then why is programming considered different? Why is not considered a basic skill that a student has to learn — just like math, language, history and poetry? I mean you don’t use most of what you learned in school, but it still developed your thought process.

With that in mind, here is some stuff you can do as a parent. Remember that peak learning occurs well before a kid gets to school. You shouldn’t wait until the teens to teach the foundations.

Mathematical Skills

Logical Skills
Teach them basics of arguments and logic. Kids should be exposed enough to the part of the world that is logical (and enough to that part of the world that doesn’t obey boolean logic).

Basic Physics
Here are some resources that will help your toddler be a physics prodigy:

Teach Your Kid To CodeFlickr (JennRene Owens)

This is just the starting stuff. Learning a programming language is not fundamentally different from learning a natural language — in both cases you learn syntax and grammar to get something from the world. “Daddy, can you unwrap this candy?” is not fundamentally different from “gzip -d candy.tar.gz” — the latter looks weird to us only if we are too wired to the former.

What if we teach a programming language right in parallel to a natural human language? What if a baby could learn to hit a sequence of keys to get an output (say light, sound, toy jumping) whatever? These special could be built (starting with a Raspberry Pi kit).

Balaji Viswanathan is a product manager at Black Duck – a VC funded startup in Boston. You can visit his website for more of his writing at www.nalandau.com. Read more from Quora here: