How Little Sandbox is future proofing the kids of today.
We’ve never been great at shouting about what we do at Sandbox, often we find it hard to put it into words. We’ve evolved so much over the years. We still make websites, but then we also run a kids tech club. Completely different services – because Little Sandbox has grown from being a one off project to a core service and, as recent changes to our board will indicate, our primary focus for the future.
Get us on the subject of Little Sandbox and you’ll see us come alive, whether you’re talking to Chris or myself, our passion for the club is evident. But why? Why does this club mean so much to us?
Well, there’s a few reasons.
A club for kids who don’t like going to clubs
When I was young, I was what you might call weird. I’m going to make an assumption here that Chris was the same. While being the weird kid at school is like the stuff of nightmares, it’s a lot easier to embrace as an adult because it’s easier to find your people, and I’m quite happy to have been one of the weird kids – weird kids make the best adults.
I know what it’s like to not fit in with the rest of your class mates. I see my younger self in a lot of the kids that come to Little Sandbox and for every parent that tells us their child just doesn’t like football or dance, or finds it hard to make friends, we nod in understanding and reassure them that they’re in the right place. Being able to bring those kids together and provide a social environment means a lot to us, because we know how hard it is to grow up feeling like you don’t belong.
Dealing with the image problem
When Little Sandbox was still just an idea, we were forever telling everyone who would listen, about this brilliant idea we had for a tech club for kids. We spoke to parents, teachers, our friends, families and anyone who would listen to our pitch.
If I had £10 for every parent that rolled their eyes and said “my son would love that, I think he’s going to be a nerd when he grows up” and then grimace, like being a nerd is just the worst thing they could imagine – well, we’d have been able to get set up much sooner without grant funding!
So although a lot of our members are already hooked on tech, we have managed to convert a few kids by demonstrating how cool, creative and fun tech can be. Whether that’s engraving a piece of wood with a laser, 3D printing a model they’ve designed themselves, or coding and wiring their own game, Little Sandbox makes tech fun.
Tech’s not just for boys
Another reason I love Little Sandbox so much is that it’s doing it’s bit to break down the gender divide in the tech industry, which has certainly been at the forefront of my mind for several years. We’ve often talked about the future skills shortage and the number of job roles that are becoming automated, and it makes sense that encouraging girls to enter the tech industry will address that issue.
A recent study showed that children as young as 6 start recognising gender stereotypes. I’m sure we’re all guilty of cooing over babies, but while boys are often praised for being clever and strong and brave, girls are praised for being beautiful and get treated like princesses. That mindset; that girls are pretty and boys are smart, has already taken hold by the time kids get to school. So changing that message, encouraging girls to see themselves as clever and brave and strong, is an important job and there are some brilliant organisations around – like Liverpool Girl Geeks – who are doing really important work, giving girls the confidence to be more than just pretty and inspiring young women to learn about technology.
But as long as tech continues to be seen as a predominantly male subject, encouraging girls to learn about tech won’t make the tech industry any more welcoming or attractive to women entering the workforce – indeed, how can men be expected to make their work place attractive to women when such deep rooted gender bias is in place?
Changing the way men view women and technology
Women don’t need their tech to come in pretty colours. Tech is an exciting subject, it’s innovative, creative and challenging. Why wouldn’t women want to be part of that? And why do people feel that they have to package it differently to make it appealing to women. Personally speaking, I don’t want to programme clothing and jewellery, I want to build a robot!
Women aren’t asking for much, we just want to be taken seriously. If we want to try something that’s been traditionally considered a male activity, just point us in the right direction, share your knowledge and skills and accept that we might be just as good as at these so-called male subjects as the boys are.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to ask for help, because we think we’re going to be judged, as though we’re not capable. But knowing how to use a soldering iron is a matter of inexperience not an issue of our capability. Addressing the gender divide is as much about changing the way boys view the tech industry and the role women play in it, as it is about inspiring and empowering girls to recognise their strengths and capabilities in STEM subjects.
At Little Sandbox, we’re working with children from the age of 6. Our clubs are mixed so that, from an early age, boys and girls are learning about technology together. They recognise each individual has their strengths and areas of expertise without gender bias being a factor. By creating these environments from a young age, perhaps when these boys grow up, they won’t be creating an unwelcome environment for women, because they’ll be used to working alongside girls already and will show their female colleagues the respect they deserve for the knowledge and skills they have acquired.
Speaking as a former tomboy who never allowed a bit of gender bias stop me exploring hobbies that I learned from my dad rather than my mum, I love seeing the girls at Little Sandbox, they come in week after week, grab a laptop or iPad and just get on with whatever they’re doing. Quietly learning to change the world.