“What, has a real person really been on the moon?” A crisp and bright daytime moon was imprinted on a clear, blue sky, and my four-year-old son Dominic couldn’t take his eyes off it. Yes, I told him, as we joined the stream of parents and kids crossing the playground after school: actually 12 people have walked around up there. “How did they get there? Why did they go? Did they come back?” These were big questions. To answer them I took a deep breath and told him a story that lasted all the way home. A story about some scientists, a rocket ship and a spaceman called Neil.
Though it’s probably too soon to tell, this might just have been his first (small) step in learning to write computer code. The Apollo 11 moon landing makes for fabulous storybook material. And it turned out to be a safe setting to introduce Dom to some fairly daunting ‘adult’ ideas pitched up by the logic of the tale: what aerospace engineers are, for example (the people who invented the spaceships), and the kinds of things computer programmers do (they had to tell the spaceships which direction to fly in).
As a writer and editor by trade, I’m used to the idea that telling stories is the most effective way to make difficult concepts tangible. But it’s easy to take for granted just how deep the narrative instinct runs in all of us. In fact, framing the world in terms of character, action, beginning, middle and end, goes hand-in-hand with our very earliest grasp of language. It’s why educational toys that are grounded in storytelling, such as Cubetto, are so powerful, and it’s what makes beginning computer programming for kids as young as three and four such an adventure.
1. Everything starts with a story
“I think story is one of the most powerful shaping forces in human life,” said Jonathan Gottschall, author of the book ‘The Storytelling Animal’, in a 2012 interview with Scientific American magazine. “In the same way that plankton isn’t aware that it’s tumbling through salt water, we humans aren’t aware that we are constantly moving through story – from novels, to films, to religious myths, to dreams and fantasies…”
Exactly why stories form such an elemental aspect of our experience has been a hot topic at least since the time Aristotle was formulating his ‘Poetics’ in the 4th century BCE. In his investigation into the structure of dramatic art (which he saw as an “imitation” of real life), the philosopher ascribed the origin of story to two basic causes, “both of them rooted in human nature. Namely (1) the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood… and so is (2) the pleasure that all men take in works of imitation.” And considering so many screenwriters working in Hollywood and TV some 2,350 years later still follow Aristotle’s rules for plot construction religiously, he must have been on to something.
Robyn Budlender https://unsplash.com/@robzy_m
In the modern era, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have found storytelling at the bedrock of all human cultures. Mythmaking has been recognised as the formative element that cements social groups into shared identities, from hunter-gatherers’ tribal folklore to the foundation stories of great civilisations such as Rome’s legend of Romulus and Remus. In his 1964 book ‘The Raw and the Cooked’, Claude Lévi-Strauss famously explained this by the notion that “myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact”.
Similarly, the great American literary critic Kenneth Burke in 1938 identified literature as “equipment for living”. By this he meant that fiction provides us with our most basic templates for how to behave and interact with others, in a lifelong process of socialisation that begins with bedtime stories and continues to guide us as adults, in novels, proverbs, theatre, comedy, songs.
Burke’s idea has been borne out by recent scientific research into how people’s brains respond when they’re engrossed in a story. Psychologist Dr ralul Zak of Claremont Graduate University has reported that enjoying a good yarn heightens the listener’s empathy by producing oxytocin in the brain – a neurochemical that’s been shown to motivate trust and cooperation with others. In experiments conducted at Missouri’s Washington University in 2009, meanwhile, fMRI scans showed that people displayed the same brain activity when reading about characters thrown into fictional situations as they would if they were experiencing the events in real life. This empathy enhances the reader’s ability to absorb data from the narrative. “The information available to readers when reading a story,” concluded the researchers, “is vastly richer than the information provided by the text alone.”
And for young children, stories may have the power not just to turbo-charge comprehension in the moment, but to shape cognitive development over time as well. Psychologists at York University in Canada published findings in 2010 that suggested children aged between four and six who regularly had narrative fiction read to them developed stronger theory-of-mind abilities (that is, the capacity to accurately assess the emotions and intentions of others), than those who didn’t.
2. Fairy-tale beginnings – harnessing stories to teach kids coding
“When I think about what I learned from stories,” says Linda Liukas, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Helsinki, “it’s not only the cute characters and adventures, it’s also friendship, the role of family, a sense of purpose – all of these things that stick with us for many years.”
Three years ago Linda turned to writing and illustrating children’s books as a way to introduce pre-school kids to the world of coding. “I was lucky enough to grow up in Scandinavia where we have this very strong sense of storytelling,” she says. The hero of her book ‘Hello Ruby’ is a girl who codes to solve problems with the help of her friends – a beautiful Snow Leopard (who symbolises Apple in the story), Linux the penguin, Python the snake and an army of helpful green robots (who represent Google).
Linda Liukas. Photo: Maija Tammi
“It’s a book I wish existed when I was a little girl,” says Linda, one featuring a “role model that would show me the world of technology as something that I belong to, and as something approachable and fun and whimsical.”
Linda’s storytelling approach emerged from her own struggle to learn the programming language Ruby in her twenties. As she recalls: “Every time I ran into a problem I would try to think: how would a six-year-old explain this?” In doing so she would find the solutions had “more to do with play and exploration and finding hidden things… than the very mechanical, straightforward world that schoolbooks make you think that programming is.”
Linda’s work is inspired in part by the application of Computational Thinking – a strategy that aims to recast real-world problems into their underlying logical structures in order to find the best, most generally applicable solutions – to children’s education. And in trying to find ways to make programming playful, she also takes her cues from the Montessori approach to learning. Especially in “Montessori’s idea that things should be beautiful,” says Linda, whereby “materials, and colours and shapes and textures really matter. And simplicity – the idea that Montessori materials teach one concept at a time, in the simplest form possible, is another thing I’m trying to look at.”
From Linda’s perspective, any notion that the ‘art’ of storytelling is somehow at odds with the ‘science’ of computing is a misleading one. Computer science education shouldn’t be “all about the computer” itself, she says, but rather seen in terms of “studying the world with the help of the computer… What I would say to parents is that the roots of computer science education are in very creative, artistic expression.”
Markus Spiske https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske
3. Beyond the tale – how coding is a close relative of storytelling
In fact, computer code and stories have a much closer family resemblance than many people realise. Fourteen years ago, Texas-based programmer Ron Burkey was inspired by a story to take on a gargantuan coding project. One night, after watching the Tom Hanks film ‘Apollo 13’, which tells the true story of Nasa’s failed third mission to land on the moon in 1970, Ron decided to track down all the original code that ran the guidance systems onboard the spacecraft of the Apollo missions. His epic Apollo Guidance Computer Project, in which Ron compiles and updates the ancient lunar-landing programs for modern computers, is a labour of love that he’s still immersed in (the original code ran to millions of lines across a decade’s worth of iterations).
According to Ron, “Engineering design is a creative activity, much more similar to art than any non-engineer gives it credit for.” For example, “The way I personally write software is very much the way a writer might write a short story, in a couple of ways.” Firstly, Ron points to similarities in the ways that coders and fiction writers might structure their projects: programmers often start by plotting key requirements into an overall design and then “fill in all of the individual blocks of the flowchart with actual code. In much the same way… a disciplined writer might put a lot of effort into developing an outline of what they were going to write, and then flesh it out until it was the final story or article.”
Simulated Apollo 11 lunar landing, using Ron Burkey’s Apollo Guidance Computer software
Secondly, writers of code and of fiction both craft highly personal responses to the issues they’re grappling with. For programmers, any solution to a problem is the result of a “very individual set of choices. Another engineer would have produced something different, something perhaps ‘more beautiful’ or ‘uglier’ than what you had done. The creativity comes from imagining what different choices you might make, and figuring out which are the most compelling.”
More than this, both are engaged in creating self-contained worlds, line by line, within the constraints of logic and language. In a 2008 paper for the journal ‘Perspectives on Psychological Science’, researchers Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley define stories as simulations that “model the social world through abstraction”. They even go so far as to say that stories are a kind of programming for our brains: “Just as the idea of simulations that run on computers has extended conceptual understandings of cognitive psychology… we propose that the idea of fiction as a kind of simulation that runs on minds will extend our understanding of selves in the social world.”
4. Once upon a playtime – children as storytellers
When it comes to children’s stories in particular, one more striking similarity to computer scripts is their iterative quality. Programs are designed to repeat tasks; children are designed to have their favourite picture book read to them over and over on a seemingly endless loop until their parents’ batteries are fully drained.
In reading ‘Hello Ruby’ to groups of kids around the world, Linda Liukas makes use of her audiences’ infinite capacity for stories to encourage tactile learning. As well as the story of Ruby, the book includes fun tasks that turn everyday objects into programming tools for small hands. “A lot of them are unplugged exercises, with no computer required – a little bit like Cubetto,” she says. “One I really like is where I give kids these little stickers with an on-off button on them. I tell the kids: ‘You can make anything in this room into a computer by placing this sticker on the item.’”
‘Hello Ruby’ by Linda Liukas
And often, the hijacked object inspires its own story. “There was this little girl who said that she’d turned a bicycle lamp into a computer. She told me that if the bicycle lamp were a computer, then she could take it on a biking trip with her father and they could sleep in a tent – and the bicycle lamp could also be a movie projector. “That’s the moment I’m looking for in my books,” Linda continues. “When you can actually see a kid perceiving the world a little bit differently, and understanding how technology affects it – that’s what I find most satisfying as a writer.”
That’s also the kind of moment Cubetto has been designed conjure. When it comes down to it, making easy programming for kids a reality means allowing them to immerse themselves in creative play. Which is just another way of saying that it’s about inspiring them to invent their own stories – tales to entrance each other and themselves. As well as opening up a world of easy programming for kids, then, tactile STEM toys for toddlers such as Cubetto are storytelling machines powered by pure imagination. How far can a friendly, programmable wooden robot take a four-year-old in their coding journey? All the way to the moon.
So far Chris Bourn has spent most of the 21st century writing and editing material on popular culture for print magazines – including The Face, Time Out London and Delayed Gratification. Latterly he has also been a proponent of digital journalism, as head of content for more than 30 of Time Out’s international editions and as editor of the sustainability-focused website Collectively (now known as Vice Impact). He is currently working as a freelance writer and editor between his other commitments (mainly school runs and changing nappies).