China's pre-teens are at the forefront of a 'coding revolution.' Photo: AFP

Coding appears to be child’s play for China’s pre-teens.

Wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses and a red T-shirt, an eight-year-old Chinese boy is logged in for an online coding lesson as the teacher.

Since August, Vita has set up a coding tutorial channel on the Chinese video streaming site Bilibili and has so far garnered nearly 60,000 followers and over one million views.

He is among a growing number of children in China who are learning coding even before they enter primary school.

The trend has been fuelled by parents’ belief that coding skills will be essential for Chinese teenagers given the government’s technological drive.

“Coding’s not that easy but also not that difficult – at least not as difficult as you have imagined,” Vita, who lives in Shanghai, said.

China has invested heavily in robotics and Artificial Intelligence, or AI, in the past two years. In 2017, an AI development plan was rolled out in primary and secondary schools.

Last year, Beijing published its first AI textbook while eastern Zhejiang province listed programming as one subject for its college entrance examination.

For Vita, his father, Zhou Ziheng, who is a freelance translator of scientific and technical books, has been the driving force in this brave new world of coding.

“I learned coding when I was young, so I always believed that my son learning coding at this age was something normal,” he said.

When Vita was four, they started off by playing some coding-related games together. But this summer, Vita surprised his father by successfully rewriting the codes in an app, which didn’t work in an updated system, by himself.

“I suggested to him to record how he rewrote these codes,” Zhou said and the idea for online classes was born.

Most comments on Vita’s online videos express amazement that he can write code and even teach other children.

“I just learnt how to use the computer when I was eight,” wrote one.

Parents, who don’t have the skills to help, can send their children to coding agencies, which are booming among China’s middle-class. The market was worth 7.5 billion yuan, or US$1 billion, in 2017 but is now predicted to exceed 37.7 billion yuan next year, according to Analysys, a Chinese internet analysis firm.

“China’s programming education in public school starts very late [compared to developed countries], so our after-school tutorial agency makes up for this shortage,” Pan Gongbo, the general manager of Beijing-based Tongcheng Tongmei, a coding education center.

The school’s youngest student is only three years old. For children under six, the agency offers a special programme that includes activities such as Lego building, which also uses coding knowledge and skills.

According to Pan, children at six or seven are fully capable of learning to code in cognitive development.

“Don’t underestimate the learning speed of children. In some of our courses, they learn even faster than our adults,” he said.

Ten-year-old Ji Yingzhe has been studying the coding language Python for half a year at the agency. Before that, he took a semester-long course on fundamental robot building, which he felt was too simple.

“The codes have already been written for you, and all you have to do is to organize these [code blocks] in order,” he said.

Ji’s father sent him to learn programming because he was spending too much time playing video games. Now, he creates his own.

As for Vita, in November he competed in a coding competition for primary students, held by the Shanghai Computer Society.

He spent two months learning the coding language C++ for the competition, with the help of his father, going all the way to the final despite being among the youngest competitors.

In terms of what the future holds, Zhou said it will depend on Vita’s interest and ability but he wants to keep his son down-to-earth.

“I told him: ‘you haven’t done anything remarkable,’” Zhou said. “This is just one step of [his] coding learning.”


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