Get with the program – Computer Science in the Early Years

There a 2 reasons I have decided to sit down and write this post. The first is to share my experience, tips and tricks for teaching Computer Science to our young learners. The other, to give all Early Childhood teachers an opportunity

to stop, smile and have an opportunity to feel proud that they have been teaching the ‘new’ element of the curriculum for many years already. Yes, you heard right, the elements of the new computing curriculum in the UK are not new to Early Years and KS1, But that is not to say we can’t do what we have been doing better. So let’s break it down and see what all the buzz is about.

The UK curriculum has us look at it in terms of Algorithms, Logical thinking, Programming. I like to refer to it as climbing the A.L.Ps!

Algorithms – An important element of Computer Science are the Algorithms that are written. At first we could see this element of the curriculum as daunting and wonder why we need to teach this at such a young age. But when we view the curriculum definition of this as being ‘a precise set of instructions’  we see how easy this element now seems but also how important it is. When children have a good understanding of how important it is for an instruction to be precise, we lay the foundations for future programmers.

Understanding algorithms does not need to start with putting technology in front of children. Understanding instructions and being able to follow instructions start in our Early Years classrooms, and more often than not happens without any thought being given to it’s link with computer science. How many teachers have spent time getting children to follow routines and instructions such as lining up, packing toys away and placing them back on a shelf? If you said me!, you have been a computer science pioneer. Let’s take a look at both non-computerised ideas and Tech ideas to help children understand algorithms:

Activities:

Sandwich Bot! – Children are given a brief and shown a picture on what a sandwich (or other item of your choice should be like), children give the teacher (or sandwich bot) instructions on how to make a sandwich and comparisons are made at the end to how well the instructions were given.

Human Robots – Children find a partner and are told what their robot needs to do or where it needs to go. One child is the programmer and one is the robot. The programmer gives the robot verbal instructions, the robot cannot make any movement unless an exact instruction has been given. Review – How hard was it to give precise instructions.

Drawing – Children have a paintbrush or coloured pencils, give children instructions for creating an image. Look finished pictures and discuss differences in pictures and difficulties with the instructions.

Remote control cars – Use stage 2 remotes i.e. 4 way option of left, right, forward and reverse. Place ‘instruction’ cards with this activity and see if children can complete the challenge.

Writing – Children use symbols to write instructions for a partner. The partner must follow the symbols before the pair evaluate how accurately the instructions were carried out.

Bee Bots – Ensure children are ready for this stage as it’s important they understand the ‘clear’ button otherwise their bee bot will become overloaded with instructions and not ‘act’ as the child predicted.

Logical thinking – For many children, logical thinking comes quite naturally, for others, they need support in thinking in a logical way. Computer Science involves, patterns and instructions. It is for this reason that logical thinking is important, to be able to see an end result and the easiest, fastest or most precise way to make it happen is critical. In order to develop or write an accurate algorithm the programmer must be able to think logically.

Activities:

Chess – Nothing is better for logical thing than a game of chess. You’ll be surprised how many of your young learners already know how to play or can very easily pick up on the rules.

Battle ships – The boys in particular will love this. If you can’t get your hands on the actual game, try making a simple class version of your own.

Tic, Tac, Toe – A simple game but one that gets children thinking!

Programming – Now for the fun! All 3 skills of computer science link and in an ideal world are taught alongside each other. But programming is where all the skills come together.The goal of most of the apps and games designed to teach children computer science is not to instruct them in actual coding, but to use a visual interface with drag and drop commands to show how to think like a programmer.

That point is that they get kids thinking about basic logic structures – such as the concept that an action, gesture or particular input can trigger a defined response – and introduce them to the idea that a sequence of commands strung together can create something.

Activities:

Robot Turtles – A board game to help children understand the concepts of programming

Scratch Jr – With ScratchJr, young children (ages 5-7) can program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects, and express themselves creatively on the computer.

Daisy the Dinosaur (iPad app) – Daisy the Dinosaur by Hopscotch Technologies introduces children to basic computer programming. A challenge mode tutorial shows how to make the dinosaur move, jump, shrink and grow using drag andDaisyTheDinosaur drop instructions. Without explicitly using the terms, it demonstrates looping and conditional programming. But for children playing with this free app, it’s all about making a cute green dinosaur move at your command. In the free play mode, users can design their own programs for Daisy. Teachers and parents can play along by creating programming challenges for their children. Daisy the Dinosaur offers a taste of computer programming. It builds problem-solving and analytical skills, it’s fun and empowering for young programmers.

Lego WeDo Robotics – We all remember lego, well it has become even cooler then when we were kids. Imagine not only building with lego but programming it so it performs certain actions. Children love it! Check out the Lego WeDo website

Pencil Code – A nice web based interface for young learners who are ready to explore further or take up a challenge. A great platform for teachers to begin to understand code themselves. Take a look at Pencil Code

This of course is just a small sample of activities that can help engage children in Computer Science. I would love to hear from others on what games and activities you have used in the classroom, just add them to the comments below.

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