Complex, impenetrable and pretty dull. That’s how most adults view the world of coding. And according to Linda Liukas the Finnish programmer, illustrator and children’s book author we’re unwittingly, or maybe even knowingly, passing on those feelings to our kids. Through our own ignorance we’re turning the world of computing, the internet and code into some kind of dark, inaccessible place, only to be used rather than to be understood.
Linda believes we should be giving our kids a very different message. It’s one that she’s developed over the (not so) many years since she built her first website at the tender age of fourteen.
Now just 31 her CV is more impressive than most successful people twice her age. She studied product engineering at Stanford University, is a central figure in the world of computer programming having worked on edutech (before it was known as that), founding Rail Girls, a global phenomenon teaching the basics of programming to young women all over the world and working for five years at Codecademy in New York. She’s the Digital Champion of Finland and widely considered one of the brightest young minds in Northern Europe.
In 2013 Linda started work on Hello Ruby, a children’s book that teaches kids about technology, computing and coding in a whimsical, playful and curious way through classic storytelling. It follows the adventures of six year old Ruby, a character that Linda invented to help herself understand some of the programming problems she encountered. Having done all of the design and illustration work herself (as if she didn’t have enough skills!) she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing. Within three and a half hours the $10,000 goal was reached. Hello Ruby went on to raise $380,000 becoming the most funded children’s book campaign on Kickstarter.
Now extended beyond the book to exercises and apps, and with more books to be released this year we spoke to Linda about Hello Ruby and why it’s so important to engage our kids and ourselves in the new universal language of code.
D.A.D: What is it about Hello Ruby that you think made it relate to so many people?
LL: Hello Ruby was supposed to be an art project, supported by the Ruby community that cares and loves this topic. Instead, it resonated with mothers, fathers, sisters, co-workers; people who see the need for a more diverse body of work around computing, but are not necessarily themselves programmers. They recognise our world is increasingly run by software, but that world seems very foreign and scary.
D.A.D: You decided to launch the Hello Ruby campaign in the form of a classic kid’s book. How important do you think storytelling was to communicate the idea to kids?
LL: I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. The stories we read growing up affect the way we perceive the world as we grow up. I always imagined a parent (be it a mum or dad) reading the book to their kid and exploring the world of technology together. Hello Ruby is my attempt at giving this early experience in computers and computing culture.
For some reason narratives haven’t been used as part of technology education, even though a lot of research suggests that stories are the best way to understand new concepts, especially in childhood but also when adults. So for me it was a natural fit.
“…programming is by no means mechanical, one-way solutions to problems, but a very creative, often almost artistic process.”
D.A.D: Many adults view coding as a technical, complicated and serious subject. Whereas Hello Ruby’s world is full of vivid colours quirky characters that have a lovely handcrafted playful feel. Was it your intention to make Hello Ruby the exact opposite of these preconceptions?
LL: When I started drawing Ruby’s adventures, I began to see stories and characters everywhere in the technology world. So, yes! We often forget, that programming is by no means mechanical, one-way solutions to problems, but a very creative, often almost artistic process. I definitely wish to see programming become one tool in a big box of self-expression along with crayons and blocks of wood and prisms and pipettes. This way we’ll have a more colourful, exciting computing culture.
D.A.D: Are you planning a Hello Ruby for parents?
LL: You can learn the basics of computational thinking while reading the book together with you kids. In my opinion the best children’s books often also have messages that resonate with the adults. This in mind, Hello Ruby is designed to be worked on together with a parent.
Toolboxes in the workbook give additional information for the parents on the concepts. There is also a glossary with a short definition of each concept used in the book.
D.A.D: What would you say to all the parents who are concerned that their kids are spending too much time in front of screens?
LL: I’ve often said that if programming is the new lingua franca, instead of grammar classes we need poetry lessons. It’s not only about learning to code, it’s about learning to think.
I believe there’s plenty to learn in programming logic and culture before showing children a single screen. I chose to make this a paper-based book and activity book since children end up spending so much time in front of a screen, sitting all alone. The book is meant to be read with a parent or a close adult, who can explain the book according to the kid’s needs.
“Unless we give kids the tools to create with computers, we will raise a generation of consumers not creators.”
Another way of looking at this is to think of the word digital native. It’s almost like we assume kids would learn English by virtue of just being surrounded by it all day long, listening and discussing in the language. No. We still go to much trouble to teach kids their native language by having them read literature, write prose and poetry, learn rhetoric and so on. The same applies to technology: our kids might be surrounded by it, but it’s still up to us adults to guide and direct them. Unless we give kids the tools to create with computers, we will raise a generation of consumers not creators.
For more information about Hello Ruby and Linda’s views check out her brilliant TED talk below.