Scientists and educators in U.S. and China say it pays to introduce very young children to new technologies - from computer programing to designing electronic circuits. With the right approach, they say, children learn not to be intimidated by abstract thinking.
Even before they learn to read and write, children can manipulate images. Tablet computers with touch-sensitive screens are ideal for lining up simple commands, which is exactly what programing is all about, said Mitchel Resnick, co-developer of a code-learning program called Scratch Jr.
“Each block tells the character what to do. You snap the blocks together, and you've made a computer program," he said. "Each block has a different behavior. This block makes the cat go to the right. This one makes the cat jump. By snapping them together I make a computer program that makes it move and then jump. That's what coding is all about, putting together sequences of actions."
“It's pretty fun because, you can do, like, almost anything on it,” said seven-year-old Talia Levitt.
It is up to parents to decide how much time their children spend exposed to modern technology. But, as Sandra Calvert, Director of Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, notes, it's all around us.
"We live in the digital age," she said. "Just as it's a worry that there may be too much screen time, there is also a concern that our children will be left behind if they don't know how to use the technologies that are going to shape 21st century careers, jobs and how we are going to succeed as a nation.”
At so-called “maker spaces” in Beijing, children between four and 15 also use tools and machines, such as 3-D printers, to create various projects. They are part of the so-called “maker movement” that started in the U.S. but quickly spread to other countries, connecting people who like to make things with their hands.
One of the movements’ pioneers, Wang Shenglin, said the trend appeals to the younger generation.
“The old generation is like: ‘in the morning, we go to work.’ The young generation, we see them, they start trying, trying so hard to do what they love. I think that is the difference,” he said.
It goes against tradition in China not to follow the crowd, but young entrepreneurs like 24-year-old Huang Weijie want to change things.
“Our generation thinks that we really need to do something we like in order to innovate," he said. "To us, we are as capable as foreigners. Why they can do something and we could not?”
Huang said Chinese will have to learn that although opening a private business includes the possibility of failure, his generation will have wider experience of the world, so they will be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.