Wu Pei began teaching her 6-year-old son to code this year, thinking he'd enjoy learning a skill that might boost his future job prospects in an increasingly digitized world. Now, she runs classes in Nanjing, China, and is helping more than 100 parents introduce their children to coding.
The 35-year-old former computer programmer with Foxconn Technology Group is tapping growing demand from parents intent on preparing their preschoolers for a world in which Oxford University researchers predict half the jobs in some countries may be eliminated by robots and computers.
Similar classes are taking off across China. Reynold Ren has taught about 150 primary school-age children in Beijing to use Scratch, a project developed by the MIT Media Lab and Arduino, which enables users to create interactive objects such as robots. In Hong Kong, about 2,500 students have taken courses that Michelle Sun runs at her First Code Academy.
"Teaching the next generation coding is something that should be elevated to a strategical national importance," said Wang Jiulin, the creator of Kidscode.cn. "Even today, the majority of programmers in China can only perform very basic-level tasks and there's huge demand for top notch coders."
Wu thought over weeks about how she could introduce the fundamentals of coding to preschoolers in a way they could understand. She settled on showing them a 3-by-3 unit grid on a board and invited them to play a game in which the students were asked to identify locations using simple directions, such as up, down, right and left. She then switched to a number system and asked the children to pinpoint locations using coordinates. When students are familiar with the concept of an X and Y axis, she teaches them to play simple games involving airplanes on Scratch. Once they are hooked, she encourages them to learn how to create similar games themselves.
Nanjing mother Zhang Minyan began encouraging her 5-year-old daughter to learn coding from Wu after watching a video of an American child who wrote an app for friends so they could share their views on Canadian singer Justin Bieber, she said. Before that, Zhang hadn't thought it was necessary for children to learn.
"That made a big impression on me," Zhang, 32, recalls. "I thought, since my child is playing games on an iPad everyday already, why not give her some guidance and let her learn something in the process?" Also children are learning to code in other countries and Zhang doesn't want her daughter to be left behind, she says.
Encouraging children to learn how to write the instructions for computer programs may help China move up the technology value chain, making it more of an innovator of software and digital tools, rather than a mass manufacturer and a component supplier. As it is now, the world's second-largest economy lags behind at least 16 countries in Europe and the U.S. in putting coding on the national school curriculum.
Not everyone agrees that coding promises to secure a child's future. Automation may even make it possible for machines to take over the majority of coding tasks in a decade, said Tom Davenport, a professor of IT and Management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "It's not really necessary for millions of 3-year-olds to be trained in programming," he said.
Predicting which professions will be needed most in the future can be a crapshoot. Nine of the 10 most in-demand jobs in 2012 didn't exist in 2003, the World Economic Forum said in September.
Wu says she's not counting on coding to make her child successful. Rather, she sees it as "another tool to express himself" and part of the mandatory digital skills people worldwide are likely to need in decades to come.