Coding Games for Kids, Especially Girls, Have Come a Long Way

As someone who’s had my children in the last decade, I can tell you that the pushy-parent movement sometimes makes me feel like I’m failing my kids because they can’t code. I’ve always been a bit dubious about coding and young children, like WIRED’s Adrienne So: Is it really that necessary a life skill when getting them to master basic hygiene, or feeling generous enough to share a toy with a sibling, is tricky enough? I had a change of heart about coding a few months ago, when a friend told me my girls should try a coding game she’d discovered: Erase All Kittens (EAK). A web-based Mario-style adventure game designed for children 8 and up, it combines a gamified, story-driven narrative and cute characters with something unexpected: kitten GIFs which pop up throughout gameplay. Plus, it’s currently free to play, a real perk when the cost of some coding platforms can feel off-putting and prohibitive.My older two daughters, aged 8 and 10, are just the right target demographic for the game, and they became instantly hooked. (I’m not—yet I also find myself playing.) Instead of pulling them off the computer, I’ve been urging them to play more, realizing this is a far better use of their time than their previously preferred alternative: watching endless sponcon videos on YouTube.EAK is more than fun: We’re learning practical skills as we play. It uses real syntax—the same that professional developers would use—to teach coding. This differs from most coding options currently available for kids, like Scratch or Blockly, which teach the basics of computational thinking using drag-and-drop coding.“We’ve found that this has created a huge gap—between kids learning the simple concepts of coding, and being able to learn professional skills that can be applied in a creative, real-world context,” explains EAK cofounder Dee Saigal.Coding Games for Girls Are Finally HereWhile there’s no shortage of coding platforms and resources for children (Tynker, Code Monkey and Kodable, to name just a few), many seem geared towards younger kids, with little to entice tweener girls.An oversight? Perhaps. Also, a huge problem: Studies show that the tween stage is a particularly critical time when it comes to engaging girls with STEM. Research from the Swedish School’s Inspectorate found that girls are just as interested in technology as boys up to age 11 (86 percent); by age 15, it drops significantly (37 percent).But things are starting to change. Hopscotch, a coding platform for children cofounded by Samantha John, was born partly out of John’s feeling as a youngster that programming was “not made for people like me.” The creator-friendly platform allows kids to play others’ games and gives them the tools to make up their own. Girls do tend to pursue different projects than boys on the platform, programming games relating to music, storytelling, or design.Girls’ varied pursuits are reflected in their gaming interests beyond coding: They’re half as likely as boys to play action games in Roblox (which saw 100 percent growth in female Roblox Studio players from March 2020 to March 2021, both under- and over-16s). They’re also 2.5 times more likely to spend time in role-playing experiences, compared to under-16 males, according to figures supplied by the platform.It’s no coincidence that female developers are making these new girl-friendly coding games. They know how girls think.When Saigal and her team were doing research for EAK, they chatted to hundreds of 8- to 13-year-olds, parents, and computing teachers. By replacing dry instructional text with story-driven gameplay and humorous dialog, by tailoring coding mechanics to teach each skill to avoid constant repetition, and by incentivizing kids with “instant results” coding, everyone, especially girls, felt more confident and interested while playing the game (cat GIFs were a fun add-on for some positive vibes).Feedback from 12,000 students showed that before playing EAK, only 10 percent of the girls wanted to learn more about coding. After playing, this figure increased to 95 percent. In the game’s newest (paid) iteration, launching in September, players will also be able to snap up illustrated kitten cards, Pokémon-style, as well as face challenging enemies and collect coins.Creating programming games that appeal to girls is only half the battle. With women representing just 27 percent of STEM workers in the US, a combination of factors is required for real change, including reframing how girls view themselves in relation to math and science. It’s a space that can feel unforgiving for females, who are often their own harshest critics, but it is also still subject to unconscious bias and stereotypes about girls being less capable. (As research from a few years ago found, there’s no room to fail if you’re a woman; even having code accepted, which happened more often for women than men, required their gender to be concealed.)Teaching Girls It’s OK to FailWith more hurdles to jump over and harsher consequences if there is a misstep, it can feel like girls don’t have the same option for trial and error as their male counterparts, even though taking risks and making mistakes is precisely what coding is all about.John noticed that girls are more reticent to showcase their creations on her platform, spending longer on them and making sure there are “no bugs” (compared with boys, who are more comfortable sharing their work as they go).Netherlands-based Janneke Niessen, an entrepreneur turned investor, is the creator of The New Girl Code, a series of novels based on her own adventures in tech. Geared towards young female readers, the series aims to remedy the cult of perfectionism among girl coders.“Failure is just part of the process, and an important part of the process. What I think is a pity is that at quite a young age girls think that tech is boring and difficult and not for them.“If you ask them if they want to work at Snapchat or Instagram, they say yes. So their view of what working in tech means is not correct. But if they close doors early on in their lives, that has implications for the opportunities they have later in life,” she says.Coding: Put It in Their FingertipsWhile EAK teaches kids to type “real code, so it can never be on a phone,” according to Saigal, one big change in the new breed of coding apps for kids is that many of them are mobile-first. Which already makes them more tween- and teen-girl-friendly. (Female gamers tend to play 25 percent longer than men when playing on their phones.)As John says of Hopscotch, which lets you create on mobile (and on the iPad), this is “super important because that’s the computer that kids actually want to use.”Another mobile-first coding app founded from a desire to get more young women interested in computing comes from Stockholm-based, female-led imagiLabs, a coding community and social network launched in 2018.The iOS app gets kids coding in Python in a gamified way, for free, using a character called an “imagiGhost,” who teaches them to make pixel art. There’s also a smart coding accessory: the $93 imagiCharm, which features 64 LED squares in an 8 x 8 matrix, which can be attached to a backpack.The company sent us one to test, which my 8-year-old has been playing with. When I asked her how the coding was going one day, she asserted, with an eye roll: “This isn’t coding. It’s really fun; I’m changing colors and making art.”Reframing what coding can look like is exactly what imagiLabs’ founders are trying to do, and it might just be essential in attracting a new generation of coders.Coding and CommunityThe social side of these services is important as well. imagiLabs and Hopscotch both act as social networks of sorts, encouraging kids to share their own games with one another, as well as helping and chatting to other users.Programs through Girls Who Code and UK-based Stemettes can be pivotal in breaking down barriers to entry for tweens and teens, as well as encouraging those who have been historically underrepresented in computer science to give it a try, through free coding sessions, workshops, camps and mentorship schemes for girls and nonbinary students. These initiatives help highlight female role models in the industry, while also making a case for the role that peers can play in igniting those first sparks of interest in computing.“I never really got that into it until I met other people who liked it as well,” says 17-year-old Annabel Lowe from London, a member of the Stemette Society, a platform where people post opportunities, meet other like-minded students, learn about events on topics like cybersecurity and more. “I think that really helped me, finding a community of people who coded and encouraged me to push myself and do it more. I think having other people your age is such a big thing in coding. Boys who may be the same age as me are interested in coding very different things,” Like many of her friends, Lowe wants to use coding as a force for positive change. She plans to study computer science in college, in part because she hopes to help close the gender gap in tech.“Programming is now being used in every profession—girls who learn to code will have far more opportunities, higher wages and flexibility in their career, than young women without these skills. In today’s world, there’s the literate and then there’s the computer-literate; of the two, it’s the latter group that is more poised for success,” says Saigal.In a world where most coding tools are still designed by men, the need for diverse voices and perspectives in coding is clear, so it’s no surprise these platforms are winning support from influential financial backers: EAK closed a $1 million seed round in March 2021, while John secured a $550,000 investment from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank for Hopscotch.As Niessen points out, “if you’re a rich white guy from Silicon Valley and you think your taxi is too late, you invent Uber. If you grow up without clean drinking water, you probably start a different company. And we need that diversity in companies and problems that we're tackling as well.”In case you were wondering: All of these coding platforms are popular with boys too.