Kids are amazing at learning new technologies. They can learn to use smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk. But merely using new technologies does not enable them to get creative as well.
“It’s almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies,” said the MIT professor Mitchel Resnick during his 2013 TED Talk. He heads the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, which develops new technologies for creativity at MIT’s Media Lab.
For information technology, coding is like writing. So hundreds of organizations and websites have been founded that help kids learn to code, or write and create in the digital world.
“We hear repeatedly from kids that it is more fun to make a game than to play a game and that is really exciting,” said Jocelyn Leavitt, co-founder and CEO of Hopscotch, a platform that makes computer programming fun and accessible to children.
Hopscotch is a block-based mobile programming application that helps kids easily build games and animated artwork. Through the process, kids can become familiar with coding fundamentals.
A former educator and business owner, Leavitt combined her passion for entrepreneurship with education.
“I was always very idealistic and interested in alternative ways of learning,” Leavitt said.
“When I was a teacher I believed very strongly in the idea of experiential education, like learning by doing rather than listening to a lecture.”
Leavitt teamed up with software engineer Samantha John and launched the Hopscotch application for Apple’s iPad in 2013. Since then the app has been downloaded more than 5 million times.
The app does not teach kids a complicated programming language but teaches the logic behind coding. So instead of typing complicated text, you drag and drop visual blocks to write programs.
This way, it is easy to make complicated games in hours. And users who create games with the app can share them with the Hopscotch community or friends.
Hopscotch also released an iPhone app in May 2016, which is “the first ever programming language designed for phones.”
Leavitt believes usage of the app will grow with the iPhone, as it has a higher market penetration compared with the iPad.
Hopscotch had been eyeing the mobile phone market for years but faced some challenges. User behavior for the iPhone is different from the iPad, so the company had to completely overhaul their original iPad app.
“I wish we did the iPhone product earlier. I think we were really intimidated by it. It seemed really hard,” Leavitt said.
What People Need
Hopscotch has earned praise from kids, parents, and teachers, and has received awards from the Children’s Technology Review, the Parent’s Choice Foundation, and NYC BigApps.
There is almost no marketing cost for Hopscotch as it is spreading fast by word-of-mouth. “We have been very fortunate, as the product itself is very good and it stands on its own. So people have mostly been telling other people about it. We do well in the app store as well,” she said.
To be successful Leavitt thinks it is important to create something that people want.
“A lot of entrepreneurs suffer from building a great product that nobody wants. You don’t want to get too far down the road of building something before knowing whether or not anybody will want it. So testing all the time and making sure that somebody wants what you are building is super important,” she said.
Developing the product is a continuous process for Hopscotch. “I know we have been out for a few years now, but it still feels like there is so much more to do,” said Leavitt.
The app is designed for kids between the ages of 9 and 13. “However we have users younger and much older than this range,” Leavitt said. It has been equally popular among boys and girls.
There are some other competitive platforms that teach kids how to code. And most of them are not-for-profits, like Scratch, Blockly, and code.org.
Leavitt works with a team of 8 people including engineers and game designers. She is not keen on growing the team too fast. “Some startups run into difficulties when they grow their teams too quickly. We want to have the best team,” she said.
How does the real life example compare to the education system? Teaching how to code is still a relatively new topic in most schools, according to Leavitt. A lot of schools do not have teachers who are confident enough to teach coding, she said. Until the concept spreads in schools as well, apps like Hopscotch can bridge the gap.
Leavitt grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and loves living in New York City, which was recently named as the best global city to attract and support women entrepreneurs. New York offers a large talent pool and lots of opportunities for tech startups, said Leavitt.