'Kids will be cast aside if they can't use tech'
Kids who don’t have tech skills will be viewed in the same way as those who can’t read or write, says the founder of children’s media company Bright Little Labs.
Sophie Deen wants to use the company’s first product, the Detective Dot book series, to make sure kids have the core skills of the future.
The books are coding adventure stories covering core curriculum subjects like computer science in a fun way.
“Kids without digital skills today will almost be cast aside like people who don’t have basic numeracy and literacy – it’s the same thing to me,” she told BusinessCloud.
Supported by the Department of Education, Google and Code Club, Deen helped design training to explain the new computer science curriculum for teachers after it became compulsory in 2014.
It was while doing this that Deen realised the need for an accessible introduction to subjects like coding.
“The risk is that if you don’t know what it’s about you’re just going to have kids sitting in front of the computer for an hour,” she said.
“When you’re five years old it’s really important to understand computational thinking, how we can we break things down into smaller parts and how can we solve problems – it’s more about those concepts.
“Regardless of whether you think kids should be playing in a field or sitting in front of a computer doesn’t really matter because they are in front of a computer, so let’s reach kids where they are and let’s not blame tools but give kids cool stuff to do, wherever they are.”
In the Detective Dot megapack children get a membership card to the ‘CIA’ – Children’s Intelligence Agency – and missions to complete alongside the book.
The reaction from the kids has been ‘wicked’, says Deen, and the platform now has over 1,000 children registered.
“They take the whole thing super seriously,” she said.
“They often don’t put stamps on their letters to us so we’re constantly going to the post office and spending weekends emailing back about invisibility machines. We get kids asking if they can use their CIA card to get on flights.
“We get kids to go through their schoolbooks and take data and get them to think about what they’re seeing.
“We’ve had amazing comments like one seven-year-old boy who said he doesn’t think it’s fair boys are always the leaders because it puts a lot of pressure on them.”
Deen (right) with two Detective Dot fans
Diversity became a crucial part of the project for Deen after a stint working in Wembley as a play therapist.
Eighty per cent of the children she saw were from Asian or African backgrounds yet this was rarely reflected in the stories they read and shows they watched.
“In kids’ cartoons under three per cent of characters are black,” said Deen.
“73 per cent are white but only 15 per cent of the people in the world have white Caucasian skin. 93 per cent of female cartoon characters are underweight.
“It’s really subtle and no one’s doing it on purpose but what’s meant to happen to girls growing up with images that are so unhealthy?
“If kids can’t see themselves in their own stories because there’s not much visibility and representation then the media isn’t portraying a world we say everyone has access to.”
To encourage diversity in existing tech companies, employers could look toward upskilling their existing staff rather than bringing in new blood.
“It would be cool if companies said ‘we need digital skills, there’s a shortage, what can we do with the existing staff that know our business back to front?’ and upskill them rather than hoping for a graduate,” said Deen.
“If not they will be losing a lot of their most valuable assets because tech is a tool. You need the human to think about what problem you’re trying to solve and then to employ tech to help with that.”
Parents can also play a big part in the outlook children have towards technology, believes Deen, and shouldn’t be scared off if they don’t understand themselves.
“Just help them when they’re doing homework and take an interest,” she said.
“Weekend clubs like Code Club are good but not all families go to clubs. But if the kids come home with homework get stuck in as much as you would if it was English or Maths.
“That subtle support is key and you see a drop-off because of the home school divide. However well it’s taught at school, if parents don’t support it that impacts kids a lot.”
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