In classrooms and homes around the UK, children are learning how to create simple computer games in a way that opens their eyes to the magic of the digital world. In one of the games they build, a shark chases a colourful fish. In another, monsters help teach times tables by dancing across the screen. And in a third, players help a witch find her bat after it flies away.
“The kids put these blocks [of code] together and then something happens – the shark moves, for instance. And their eyes light up,” says Kevin Garner, senior Digital Eagle at Barclays, which is behind the Code Playground sessions. “The best thing for me is when a kid gets it; it’s absolutely incredible.”
According to government figures, more than eight out of 10 jobs advertised in the UK require digital skills, and 92% of organisations say digital skills are key to their success, driving growth, innovation and productivity. But one in four (23%) say their existing workforce lacks basic digital knowledge. It’s a gap that’s estimated to cost the UK economy as much as £63bn a year in potential GDP.
Code Playground was launched in 2015 as part of Barclays’ Digital Eagles programme, which aims to help people build digital literacy and confidence with technology. The team was inspired to create a scheme for children after attending a convention run by CoderDojo, a worldwide network of coding clubs. The organisers were struggling to find locations to deliver sessions, and Barclays offered the use of its branches. In the first year, more than 2,500 classes were held for children aged seven to 17. Now Code Playground reaches about 60,000 students every year.
“The real challenge has been helping people overcome their fears around coding, and how difficult they think it is,” Garner says. “When you talk about computer programming, everyone still imagines a lad in a hoodie glued to a screen filled with endless lines of code. But the things we do are simple and it’s easy to take the first steps.”
The programme has since evolved beyond Barclays’ network of branches to work more closely with schools, aligning the classes to the national computing curriculum for key stage 2. It’s something teachers have responded positively to, given that in 2017 the Royal Society called provision for computing education “patchy and fragile”, citing a lack of support for teachers.
Garner says the situation still needs improvement. “In 2019 we did some work with a teacher training college, and at that point, there wasn’t any coding teaching in their degree. There’s loads more support now than when Code Playground first started. But we do still see a lot of teachers struggling, especially at a primary level. There are some amazing computing teachers out there but they’re not at every school.”
The team runs a virtual twice-weekly after-school club, as well as live events throughout the year. In September 2022, for example, 2,000 students from 43 schools participated in the first Dorset Coding Day, run by Barclays’ Digital Eagles in partnership with local councils. For those who can’t get to a coding day, teacher guides, lesson plans, and activity workbooks are all available on the Code Playground website, as are about 50 code-along videos that were produced during the pandemic lockdown to support homeschooling.
In Poole, 18-year-old Oli Abbas has been attending Code Playground and Barclays Eagle Labs sessions, aimed at entrepreneurs, for years. He learned how to create games on Scratch, the programming platform used by Code Playground, and now codes in Python, and uses 3D printers and laser cutters to create tools for his slot car racing hobby and puzzles. He is studying for a Cambridge Level 3 extended diploma in engineering at college. “There’s no way I would have ended up here without Code Playground,” he says. “I enjoyed every minute of it. It gave me a love of problem solving.”
He was only in year six when he was invited to attend the Festival of Code in Birmingham as part of a local Code Playground. The challenge was to create and present a phone app using real-life weather data, and Oli’s team came up with a game whereby players had to hide from acid rain, or avoid the burning sun. Oli’s mum Caterina says: “That whole experience was massive. He came away buzzing, it gave him so much confidence.” The Code Playground teachers were excellent at encouraging an inquisitive mind, she adds. “Oli’s always wanted to climb on things or run around, so to find something where he would actually sit down and work on something was great. It increased his attention span.”
Garner says he’s been surprised – and delighted – at these kinds of stories shared by former students. One is now working in cybersecurity, building robotics and drones that are used around the world. “He said that without Code Playground, he would never have gone that far,” Garner says. “I never realised we’d had that much impact. It’s really gone above and beyond what I was hoping for.”
The demand for digital skills is only growing, and so too are Garner’s plans for the future of Code Playground. “We’re always looking to add new content and activities. We want to help children with digital safety and help teachers to be able to run these sorts of sessions themselves. There’s a real desire at Barclays to go out and help the community. And we’re in a good position to do exactly that.”
To find out more about how children can enjoy learning to code, head to Barclays Digital Eagles