Zerus & Ona: A Warm Welcome to the World of Computers

Hello World

Hello World —the magazine for computing and digital making educators—, article by Miriam TocinoRead the full article. Download magazine issue here

In this feature Miriam Tocino shares the idea behind Zerus & Ona, her unique book series designed to get young children interested in technology through the power of books.

In 2013, I quit my job as an architect and stayed home for six months, teaching myself how to code through online courses. I then became a software developer, before going on to become a coding teacher. Three years ago, when I had my son, I started thinking about the way in which I’d like to introduce him to the world of computers. How would I go about it?

I started by looking at what we were already doing at home with him, which was reading books. Children start building their reality from books — when they read, their whole life becomes that book. We often use computers to introduce children to the wider world, but I wanted to use books to welcome him to the world of computers — without the need for a screen.

It was during a discussion with my husband, who is a game programmer, that the idea for Zerus & Ona first took shape. “What if we read him stories that take place inside a computer? About how computers do maths, or graphics, and how the internet works? And what if they were told by a zero and a one? They could live in the Binary World!”

That’s how Zerus and Ona were born. They are the two main characters of a picture book series about computer-related topics, with the aim of getting young children excited about technology and helping them expand their vocabulary and their knowledge of computer science.

Seeking creativity in technology

I haven’t always been this passionate about computers. My dad wanted me to go into computer science but, as a child, I always thought computers were grey and boring. I wanted to do something creative and colourful, something that helped other people around me. So instead, I went to college and studied architecture. It took me more than 30 years to find the creative, colourful, human side of technology. I don’t want the same thing to happen to today’s children. That’s why we need to come up with fresh and innovative ways to introduce young children to the world of computers, and to reach as many of them as we can so they learn how exciting it can be!

We now live in a world where children are introduced to computers at a younger and younger age, but computers are often seen as daunting by both parents and teachers. We need to take those fears away, and to talk to our children about technology so that they become familiar with it and don’t suffer from those same fears.

After speaking to parents and teachers, it seems that many girls in particular still see computers as I did. With Zerus and Ona I want to intervene and save those girls. They’re a tool my dad didn’t have when he was encouraging me to become interested in computers.

Of course, the books aren’t just for girls — it’s important to reach out to boys too; that’s why I chose two main characters, because I want to portray an equal relationship between a boy and girl in dealing with computers, and so that both girls and boys can identify with the characters.

Understanding computers is a superpower

Children need to know that understanding computers and how they work will give them superpowers! This understanding will become part of the toolkit they use to express themselves and create their own world, in whatever way they choose — whether they become a dancer, a scientist spending their time in the lab, or an astronaut who goes into space.

Children need to know that understanding computers will help them create their own world, in whatever way they choose.

Not every child needs to become a computer programmer, but as adults they will undoubtedly need computers in some way — even if they just require a website. And we need to teach this in such a way that they see the computer as a friend, full of possibilities and challenges. Computers are everywhere — they’re part of children’s culture, and part of their upbringing.

Sparking children’s curiosity

Illustration and storytelling are two of the things I loved the most when I was little. And when learning something new, the vehicle of communication becomes as important as the topic we’re trying to teach, and it enables us to reach our children.

Let’s take the title in the Zerus & Ona series, Welcome to our World, as an example.

The book is in the form of a poem and a song that you can learn, sing, and dance along to. You start by reading the book with your children, so they get to know Zerus and Ona. You talk about zeros and ones, and how they live inside computers; then introduce them to the song that accompanies the book. They can learn it by heart, and dance to it for a week. 

Once they’re reciting the song, you can say, “Oh, did you know they use code to play the music? Let’s see how they do that!” 

You can then show them some code pieces for running and making sounds. So you’ve now sparked their curiosity for STEM, and when it’s time to learn some coding, your children are already interested.

To accompany the Zerus & Ona book series, I created The ABC of Computers, a free series where children can build up their knowledge and learn about computer technology, week by week. A recent chapter introduced children to the computer’s central processing unit (CPU). You can explain to your children that the CPU is like the brain inside their computer, and it’s in charge of controlling its other parts. A good idea is to take a human example. Tell them that every time they want to move a finger, it all starts in their brain. The brain sends instructions to that part of their body, and tells it to move. The CPU plays a similar role inside their computer.  

I have a passion for finding unexpected and surprising connections between technology and the world around us. And these are the conversations that I wish to see happening more and more between parents, teachers, and children.

Technology is everywhere right now, and it’s becoming easier every day to find examples that connect with children’s interests.

This appears on issue 14 of Hello World.

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