Reading, Writing and … Computing? Teaching Coding to Young Children
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Reading, Writing and … Computing? Teaching Coding to Young Children


Hello. I’m Keri Gritt and I’m a technology coordinator for an elementary school. I work with students pre-K to 5th grade but I’m here today to talk about our youngest students. Our 4 and 5 year olds. For those of you who don’t work with this age group let me start by sharing a bit about them. Children at this age are little. Like 3 feet tall little. They’re goofy, creative, intensely curious, often fearless. And almost always sticky or wet or both. They’re learning to read and share and I believe they’re the perfect age to begin learning to code. We can agree that coding’s important but for children today it will likely be essential. Some experts say coding will be as important for today’s children as learning to read and write as so many jobs in the future will require coding skills. We teach basic reading and writing starting in pre-K so I asked, “Why not teach basic coding as well?” I found that with the right resources and goals in mind teaching coding at this age both gives students a jump start developing an important skill set and also reinforces a number of concepts already taught in an elementary classroom. Things like sequencing, patterns, measurement and creative storytelling. This helped make space for coding in the curriculum as it was less of an addition to what we taught and more of a shift in how we taught it. Coding also helps students develop 21st century success skills. They engage in critical thinking as they break problems down into simple steps. They develop perseverance and flexibility as they try different ways to overcome obstacles. And they practice communication skills when working as a team. So how are we doing this? Before using any programs or robots, we start by tying sequencing and commands to physical movement. Here our students follow a program listed with cards on the white board, starting and stopping with begin and end commands. Students then write programs to teach to a classmate. One lesson has them program a peer across the room. They must decide which turns are necessary and how to avoid obstacles. This helps them relate commands to their associated actions and understand the importance of logically sequencing events. We then start working with robots. Especially in these early years, combining robots with coding is powerful. They make coding more engaging and visual allowing students to see their code brought to life. We currently use KIBO robot kits and Dash robots and Puzzlets. Before using a KIBO robot students must assemble it, deciding which parts they will need. This helps them understand how the robot works while also developing those fine motor skills. They then create a sequence of instructions using the KIBO blocks. The robot’s mouth doubles as a bar code scanner. After scanning the blocks, the robot performs the actions in the sequence at the push of a button. With young students we primarily use the motion, light and sound blocks. More advanced students can also utilize sensors, loops and conditionals. One lesson begins with the students doing the hokey pokey dance. We talk through how we could code the dance so KIBO can perform it with us. They then work in groups to create an original dance and build a program that mirrors it. Dash robots can be programmed with apps but for young students Puzzlet trays are a great option. The trays come with tiles that represent the different actions Dash can do. A child creates a sequence of instructions by placing the tiles into the tray which the robot performs when the green play tile is inserted. The tiles can make Dash move, turn, light up with different colors, laugh, spin and even make kissing sounds. Which 4 year olds typically find both hilarious and totally gross. In one activity our kindergartners programmed Dash to follow a path lined in masking tape. This helped students practice left versus right, sequencing and ordinal numbers. The classroom tiles are each one foot long so we also talk about measurement and figure out the total distance Dash travelled. In another lesson, students program their Dash to do a square dance. We line the Dashes up and synchronize the start time so that the robots perform the dance together. This requires a lot of teamwork and communication on the students’ part. But as you can see on their faces, the end result is always pretty delightful. There are a few reasons I chose KIBO and Dash for my school. They both can be used screen-free, focusing students on the coding and not the device. The blocks and tiles rely on symbols and images so students don’t have to be able to read to be able to code. The robots can be accessorized, allowing for creativity and they offer options for more complex coding, so they can grow with the students. Starting coding at a young age has helped prepare our student for more advanced coding later on. We now have two competitive FIRST LEGO League teams and our upper elementary students work on remarkable projects programming robots to play original songs, navigate obstacle courses and compete in soccer games. It’s exciting to think about what these students are doing now and what they will be capable of doing down the line. New technology such as these robotics kits offer children a way to learn computational thinking while still honoring that they are young children who need to play, move and explore. While we don’t know what the future will look like for these little students, we do know that if they are creative, flexible problem solvers they will find success and coding can help get them there. Thank you.

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