Startups: Child’s play

Digitalwerkstatt is producing the next generation of programmers by holding coding workshops for kids. Parents take note!

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

Will Verena Pausder’s Digitalwerkstatt produce the next generation of programmers?

Berlin’s digital revolution is taking place on a deceptively quiet street in Mitte. The Digitalwerkstatt is cosy and brightly decorated. There are squishy chairs in neon fabrics, beanbags, a wall with magnetic shapes – “so the children can illustrate their ideas to one another,” says founder Verena Pausder – and a 3D printer nestled in the back of the workshop. It doesn’t look a million miles away from your average start-up: there’s an anti-fixed desk policy, for one thing, and a small library of coding books.

Opened in February, the Digitalwerkstatt boasts that it’s “Germany’s first coding workshop for children” (the workshop series CoderDojo started earlier, in 2013, but it was an Irish import). For Pausder, it’s not just business, but pleasure. Berlin’s tech poster girl has been promoting the digital world to children for the past five years in her role as co-founder of the children’s app brand Fox & Sheep but felt something was missing. She didn’t want children to passively consume digital products, but to be inspired to make their own.

After running a test coding course for a group of children last year, Pausder saw how successful her idea could be and in just four months she found the Linienstraße space, furnished it, hired staff from both educational and digital media and launched the project. She’s excited to share the positive results she’s already had from sending her own two children to the workshop – apparently her son has been inspired to build an app that’s going to be “like Clash of Clans, but better!”

Today’s creative coding class, taught in English and German, begins with the instructor asking the children to set “objectives” that they should aim to meet by the end of the class. You know, like at work. As a grown up. In an office – probably one with cubicles. However, the children seem undeterred by the pseudo-corporate language used and get stuck in with relish. They use a programme called Scratch to animate a “sprite” – in non-Scratch English, that’s a character – and make it move, talk, dance and change colour. Although they use worksheets to complete each task, it feels more like playtime than a lesson – there’s a constant buzz of excited conversation between the children, who are paired up on projects.

I’m not sure coding can compete with breakdancing, but Isabella begs to differ. ‘It’s really cool. And easy.’

I’m there with Isabella, our photographer’s 10-year-old daughter, who tells me she’ll have to leave early because she has a breakdancing session scheduled directly after the class. I’m not sure coding can compete with breakdancing, but she begs to differ. “It’s really cool,” she says. “And easy.”

This is exactly the reaction Pausder is hoping for. Although the workshop has no explicit feminist agenda, Pausder finds introducing girls to coding between the ages of six and 12 means that they’re less likely to reject opportunities in tech as “not my sort of thing” when they’re a little older. Certainly, all the girls in the class seem very engaged, though some for less organic reasons than others. On asking one six-year-old why she’s at the class, she responds, “Because Daddy says it’s important knowledge to have for the future.”

But whether you’re a Mitterati helicopter parent or a tech enthusiast, there’s a class for everyone – the workshop also offers courses for adults in the hope that the whole family can become engaged by the coding world and if Scratch doesn’t sound like your thing, there’s also MaKey MaKey classes (hooking up your laptop and fruit with an electronic kit so you can play bananas like a piano) and a robot-art class, taught in English, where participants can programme robots to draw for them.

The Digitalwerkstatt is already doing a brisk trade at €25-30 per workshop and €150-170 for a 10- to 17-week course, and Pausder has her sights set on opening a second workshop in a different neighbourhood. And beyond Berlin? Rolling out workshops all across Germany, then the world. Given the enthusiasm for the digital sector right now, I’d say the sky’s the limit.

More information about course dates and prices at www.digitalwerkstatt.de. Want to know what it’s all about as a parent firsthand? This Sunday, May 22, you can take a “Family Trip Into the Digital World”. It’s in German, but hey, your kid can help you with that.