This week, primary school children in Amsterdam head back to school.

Like so many previous academic years, most of them will not have any computer science or computational thinking lessons as part of formal school curricula.

As long as education systems here in the Netherlands and around the world don’t integrate these, we urge parents to take matters into their own hands. Intervening early will ensure that children acquire 21st century skills and prepare them for future hobby, study and employment opportunities.

Parents often ask us for tips on how they can encourage their children to cultivate an interest in technology and how it works. NewTechKids has compiled the following five tips for preparing kids to be successful technologists:

#1. Focus on Computational Thinking Skills, Not Coding Skills

It’s tempting to assume that if kids know how to use technology or code, they are on their way to becoming successful technologists. Parents should be aware that this is not the case. While these activities are important, parents should seek out learning opportunities which help kids develop computational thinking skills. Computational thinking means that kids think in ways which help them to:

  • see situations in their entirety or as inter-connected parts
  • break problems into smaller parts in order to solve them
  • analyse and structure information
  • understand how the technology and machines around them work
  • design and program technology to solve challenges

Computer science is an excellent subject to teach kids computational thinking skills. Unlike many other organizations which define computer science exclusively as coding, NewTechKids defines computer science broadly to include programming (coding), technology systems, design and prototyping, and technological literacy.

Case in point: Coding prepares kids to develop apps for Facebook. Computational thinking prepares kids to re-imagine social networking and then work with a multidisciplinary team of technologists to develop solutions.

#2. Encourage Kids to be Active Inventors 

Hours of watching YouTube tutorials or playing on the Xbox is conditioning kids to be first and foremost passive technology users.

We strongly advise parents to intervene early to make sure that kids learn to be technology creators AND technology users. This means introducing activities which stimulate creativity and encourage kids to enjoy creation processes (imagining, planning, designing and building). Parents should provide young children with building blocks, arts and craft supplies, and pen and paper earlier than technology devices and continue to provide ‘no tech’ activities as children age.

When children reach seven years old, we suggest adding technology such as programming kits, programmable toys and robotics kits. We suggest technology tools which combine building and programming such as LEGO WeDo, Little Bits Arduino Coding Kit and LEGO Mindstorms.

#3. Enrol Your Child in Computer Science and Programming Activities 

Computational thinking takes time and improves with practice.

If computer science or programming aren’t offered at your school, we strongly advise parents to send their children to (free and fee-based) after-school programs to bridge this gap. When evaluating programs, here is a list of questions to ask program providers:

  • How does your organization define computational thinking?
  • Will this program help my child develop computational thinking skills?
  • Will this program help my child acquire 21st century skills such as creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and communication?
  • Will this program provide my child with a solid foundation to understand the fundamental computer science concepts that are present in all technology?
  • Does this program match the way primary school children learn e.g. with tangible objects?

#4. Lobby Primary Schools to Include Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Curricula

Very few primary schools are teaching computational thinking and computer science. (Take a look at the situation in the EU.) There’s a lack of expertise (pedagogy, teaching approaches and classroom management strategies) as well as resources (curriculum, lesson plans and teaching materials). Teacher training at the primary school level is almost non-existent so most classroom teachers are not trained to teach this subject.

We strongly advise parents to lobby governments to support R&D activities related to this type of education and speed up introduction and expansion, beginning in primary school and carrying on throughout high school and university.

Parents can also lobby their schools to work with computer science education experts to offer computer science and programming programs, projects and workshops. New collaborations between teachers and these experts are key to introducing and expanding computer science education in schools.

#5. Talk about Technology with Your Kids

We’ve taught computer science and technological literacy to primary school children for almost three years. Consistently, we observe that children easily identify computers, smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles as technology but often don’t see how technology is embedded in the objects and environments around them.

We strongly advise parents to start discussing technology with their children. Parents and kids can discuss the technology in their homes (energy systems, smart appliances, home assistants) and out in public (traffic lights, metro doors, retail scanners, GPS, security systems). Discussions can explore how and why technology works, what kind of professionals design, create and program it, advantages and disadvantages, and technology’s impact on issues such as work, skills development, automation, data gathering and privacy.