When Bitsbox co-founder Scott Lininger learned to code, it was on a TRS-80 color computer his mom and dad bought him when he was a kid. He says he taught himself coding by copying from the book that came with the computer. Now a dad himself, Lininger wanted to offer his daughter the opportunity to experience learning to code much in the same way he did, but couldn’t find a service that he felt focused on the part of learning that’s really necessary: the part where you practice actually typing code.
“Most of the [learn-to-code products for kids] are fantastic,” says Lininger, who left his job at Google around six months ago, where he previously worked as a senior software engineer within its SketchUp division after selling his startup to the company back in 2007.
“All the drag-and-drop tools, they teach you the grammar, the syntax, and the structure of language,” Lininger explains. “If you’re going to be able to write something in German, you’re going to have to understand the rules of German. But then there’s just the fluency part of it…the second part is just practicing the actual coding.”
When he began looking around for recommendations and ideas for teaching coding to his daughter, his Google colleagues all told him they learned much in the same way he did – they typed out code. “None of us over the age of 30 or so learned to code by dragging blocks around,” notes Lininger. “Having kids type code works.”
The challenge, however, is making kids think that typing code is fun. That’s where Bitsbox comes in.
“The enemy is not hard, it’s boring. Kids will do hard stuff, but if it’s boring, you’ve lost them,” says Lininger.
The site, which has been live for just three weeks has already seen 70,000 users sign up and code via the web, spending 280,000 minutes doing so, which equates to 194 days of coding.
Lininger says the lightweight programming API Bitsbox uses is like the “Dick and Jane” version of coding, referencing the classic books for young readers which used very short, easy-to-spell words that repeated often.
After the kids build a game, they’re able to zap it to their tablet or smartphone (iOS or Android) by scanning a QR code. Technically speaking, these are HTML5 apps that can run in the browser on any device and include things like a simple bubble popper game, one where you drive cards around, or shoot aliens out of the sky.
Next week, Bitsbox is going to launch a Kickstarter campaign to take its service to the next level. While the website is free to use, the business that Lininger and fellow ex-Googler Aidan Chopra, also previously of SketchUp, are building is a subscription-based “box of the month” club.
The boxes will include an activity book with over a dozen apps to build. The boxes come with collectible trading cards of apps with lines of code on the back. Kids pick the project they want to do, then go online to type out the code and run the app on the screen on the virtual tablet. They can then send the app to their device or share it on social media.
The team has tested the first box with around 150 kids so far, and are now preparing to raise $45,000 on Kickstarter to help them truly launch. That funding, as well as a bit from their participation in a Boulder accelerator called Boomtown will help them ship their first three boxes, beginning in April.
The boxes cost $30/month – or about the same (or less than) many other kid activities like swimming or dance classes, for example. Kickstarter backers can also opt to receive just one box for $40 if they don’t want to subscribe.
The idea with the boxes, aimed at kids ages 7 to 11, is to give kids a reason to return to the web to continue to practice coding by offering them something new and exciting to build on a regular basis.
The team believes that coding is something that’s best introduced when children are younger, because coding is a language – and one that’s increasingly important to learn in the modern world.
“Not all kids love to read, but we make sure we teach our kids to read and write,” says Lininger. “My philosophy is that it’s the parents’ job to at least introduce [coding] and give them an opportunity to learn if they’re into it.”
Interested users can sign up to use Bitsbox now, and will be alerted next week when the Kickstarter project goes live.
Update: the Kickstarter has now gone live.