Look at the Birds of the Air - both side

Computing
 

Computing

Our kids are currently 8, 5 and 2. We keep the 2 year old away from screens. This is a quick summary of what computing looks like for us now for the 8 and 5 year old:

  • Python 3 times a week. Enough time to complete and tinker with a mini project. It's aimed at the 8 year old, but the 5 year old feels important and gets some typing practice.

  • Occasional computer use built into other subjects e.g. Excel for Maths, Sibelius for Music etc.

  • (Currently setting up) Weekly "lesson" with the guys who run our local phone shop, taking apart phones, computers, satnavs etc.

 

"Curriculum"

I'm an '89 baby. When I was at school, the IT tuition was atrocious. The current IT curriculum looks better, but seems underwhelming. I know very little about computing, my husband's work involves statistical programming including R and Python. Between us, this is what we've cobbled together:

Early Years

  • Almost zero screen. See below for more detail.

Primary Age

We've read the 2-page summary of the national curriculum. It looks fine, but simplistic. We've tried to build our own curriculum by splitting "IT" into 5 parts:

  1. using common applications

  2. software (coding)

  3. hardware (the physical stuff inside a computer)

  4. networking (the rules making things work together)

  5. internet safety and privacy

We've started tackling 1. and 2.

3., 4. and 5. is a work in progress.

1. Applications

We have started by getting the kids to grips with the basic applications below first, just to get them used to feeling how a computer works:

  • Word

  • Excel

  • PowerPoint

  • Sibelius (software letting you write down musical notes)

  • Search engines (for us, Ecosia)

  • Paint

  • (Future aim) Flash, Photoshop, video editing, Cubase (music production) + ??

  • First, we got typing. For our eldest, our first project was typing a script of the first draft of her play into Word. From then on, every so often we would type up a good piece of work, or a long piece of work that had loads of edits and would be a faff to rewrite by hand. This is a trade-off because I don't want to lose handwriting skills.

  • Internet project using a search engine. Our first internet project was on a History topic with poor book material options, the Norte Chico.

  • Making Word documents pretty using search engine images and other graphics. Projects have included illustrated poems and newspaper articles.

  • Make shapes in Paint when we get to that section in Maths.

  • Write their piano compositions or songs in Sibelius.

  • Transfer their graphs from Maths into Excel and make them pretty.

  • Look at Mummy and Daddy's budget on Excel.

  • Put together an environmental PowerPoint presentation.

  • Our next aim is to make a music video and attempt simple video editing.

2. Coding 

We've started with Python because for our family this is low-hanging fruit, it's the only child-friendly code with which we have any familiarity. However, after this we're really feeling in the dark. Here's where we've got to so far:

  • Bits and Bytes: a board game teaching the basic principles of coding - essentially that computers have to be told every step.

  • Scratch. We made a few things dance, wrote a few tunes, made a few games. After this, we felt that playing with a real adult language was actually more easy to grasp than the blocks which the kids were finding tedious to drag around.

The kids particularly enjoy it if we program the computer to respond to inputting mistakes with mildly witty comebacks. E.g. we made a program that plays rock, scissors paper. If you type in a "mistake" like "chicken" instead of "rock", "scissors" or "paper", the computer replies at random with a pre-written retort, e.g. "I win! Hoover sucks up chicken." or "I win! roadroller flattens [whatever you've inputted]."​

The website is great without prior knowledge, but if you can gain enough Python familiarity to be able to take each task further yourself, the experience is much better.

There are plenty of Python books for kids if you need more support.

  • Free Code Camp. I'm embarking on this to try and learn some of the other code languages I'm missing. I'm also hoping to check it out in case it's good enough to use for the kids and at what age. Watch this space for a review!

3. and 4. Hardware and Networking 

I know nothing about hardware and networking.

Hardware: I am currently negotiating with the local phone shop to see if they'll do some daytime tutoring, e.g. take apart phones, computers, satnavs etc. Again, I'll keep you posted.

Networking: Feel free to send me ideas. In a few years I am tempted to buy some servers, either for us as a family or perhaps to run a Tor server if that is still a thing in a few years time.

5. Privacy and Safety 

(We haven't started doing this with the kids yet)

Let's split safety and privacy into two sections:

  1. Protecting your child from poorly-funded and personal threat: sexting, porn, misuse of personal data and photos, social media bullying, doxxing, livestreaming and online video app protection, addiction etc. There is a wealth of material on this including from the NSPCC.

  2. Protecting your data, metadata and perception of reality (i.e. Fake News, algorithms giving you info that agrees with your internet worldviews) from corporations, criminal hackers (e.g. fraud) and governments. This topic does not have a wealth of material aimed at children, but the threat is just as real. Also, as a topic it's really fun.

I've taken the below topics from a much longer list of study options recommended for journalists by The Freedom of the Press Foundation. The FPF's president is Edward Snowden.

  • Encryption (full-disk phone/desktop, end-to-end, peripherals, file-based partitions, sharing media)

  • Keeping a first communication private

  • Airgapping and sandboxing 

  • Secure browsing, including Tor

  • Tails and Amnesiac mode

  • Qubes

  • Data compartmentalisation

  • Burners (what child doesn't think a burner is cool? It's nothing more than a cheap, prepaid phone not linked to your own identity)

  • Protection from doxxing

  • Protection from malware

  • Safely recording media

  • Being traced through metadata in files

  • VPNs

  • Mesh networking

  • SecureDrop, Signal etc

Edward Snowden's revelations 2013 are a great way in to understanding global Mass Surveillance and internet privacy. There is a real-time documentary of him handing over documents called Citizenfour (2014).

Screens and Screen Time!

Computing has been a tricky balancing act for us. Here's the two opposing issues in question:

  • We want to severely strict screen time because it's:

    • addictive (Within the gaming industry, "play to extinction" is a phrase genuinely used to express the aim of making the user never want to leave)

    • eats time that could be spent more socially or physically active

    • presents a range of online safety hazards

  • We want our kids to have awesome tech skills.

I'm a strong advocate of the principle "you get good at what you practice". I don't think it's possible for a kid to gain killer tech skills without ever getting time to play around with a computer. I don't have the answer on how to get the balance right, we're feeling our way.

One thing we've tried is prioritising coding and hardware familiarity over user-end applications. Our kids have, so far, found the coding a lot of fun. They don't see it as the same as schoolwork, I think they've put it in the "fun activity" category. But they're definitely not addicted, or pining for screen time with Python when we don't do any for a few days. 

Up to Age 4 or 5:

When I had my first baby, I checked out screen time ideas in Brain Rules for Baby - a popular literature review of scientific findings on baby development. It suggested that the best cognitive outcomes for children correlated with zero screen hours a day. I stuck to that pretty rigidly for our first child and mostly for our other two. 

Again, I don't know what actual impact this had on their lives. Perhaps one effect has been that they almost never ask me to do anything with a screen in their downtime, it's not really on their radar as a recreational activity.

Screen use up to age 5:

  • Almost zero screen. No TV in the house, no kid access to phone, no iPad.

  • Exceptions:

    • using Ecosia (search engine) to answer a tough question

    • listening practice in Mandarin. I make it interactive by stopping the video and chatting in the target language about what they've heard

    • Short YouTube clips that demonstrate a specific point. E.g. what does a duck-billed platypus look like? Do you want to see the news footage of when astronauts first landed on the Moon?

    • A tiny number of films or documentaries, normally in the holidays or when they're ill, e.g. David Attenborough, Alexander Hamilton

    • Zoom lessons (if necessary, e.g. during covid)

    • YouTube - to keep their heads still when I'm cutting their hair

    • We let our 5 year old join his sister for coding age 5 because he felt he was missing out. This means that our 5 year old's first interactions with a screen have basically been Scratch and Python, but he doesn't seem to have lost anything by being thrown in at the deep end.