Coding for the Early Years?

More than possible . . .

Filippo Yacob, explains that if experienced in the right way, coding can be relevant and important to learning in the Early Years.

The new literacy

Programming is fast becoming the new literacy, and with that comes a greater demand for it to be taught from an early age. This may raise eyebrows, but learning to code is like learning any other language – if you start early, and respect the needs of the age group, it becomes second nature.

Given the digital age in which we operate, it’s now more important than ever that young children are exposed to some of the basic principles involved. Being introduced to the environment of programming and the language of algorithms, debugging and functions will offer the foundations for later understanding in today’s digital world. This involves a special way of thinking, which, in my view, Early Years children can experience in a meaningful way.

Natural learning

Whether or not children are going to grow up to be programmers, teaching computational thinking in the right way allows them to pick up a wide range of skills that will be invaluable to them whatever path they choose to take.

However, when it comes to the resources through which younger children might learn this skill, educators face a bewildering choice, and much of what is available to them leads to more “screen time”. For many teachers, particularly for those working with the Early Years, excessive screen time is something to be avoided. Focusing on a screen can be isolating, and some think can even undermine a child’s ability to develop the social skills that Early Years educators value so highly.

The technology young children are exposed to in the classroom has to be not only accessible and reliable, but also relevant to their age-related needs. For younger children this means learning through play as naturally as possible in a socialised context and without additional screen time. Children all play in different ways – some may be naturally more engaged by games with rules and social interaction, while others may prefer to spend time in a world of fantasy role-play. Either way, Early Years educators know that younger children make no real distinction between learning and play.

Prototype

This led to the idea of a wooden robot which moved around on wheels according to a sequence, which children could play with and programme using a simple wooden programming board. We built prototypes and put them through their paces at the Orchard Primary School in Hackney in 2014. This was a great testing ground and we were pleased that children showed that they were able to work together to make the robot move and work according to a plan.

The board

We had of course seen other toys which can be given instructions by a series of push button instructions on the toy itself. We wanted to go a stage further and design a programming tool which could become a focus of discussion. The result was the wooden board into which children pegged wooden shapes.

Each shape was an instruction and when they had put these together in a sequence they could design a journey. Children were able to talk about what instructions to insert and then predict the journey the robot would take. When the “enter” button was pressed on the board, off went the robot, which we had come to call “Cubetto”!

Debugging

As in the design of any coding sequence, things often go wrong and sometimes the journey does not turn out as the children had expected! The board allows them to create a concrete connection between their intended sequence and the outcome. They don’t have to remember the buttons they pushed on the toy: the program they wrote is clearly there in front of them and they can discuss which of the instructions was incorrect. This introduces the important concept of “debugging” which becomes a matter of swapping the block in the sequence that caused the error.

After the trials, we were able to raise the money for Cubetto’s development through a Kickstarter appeal, and just went for it. The project was taking off!

Program or be programmed?

If done in the right way, even Early Years children can experience the building blocks of computational thinking without compromising their independence or the development of their social skills – quite the reverse.  The exercise of logic, the experience of problem-solving, the ability to be critical while developing creativity are skills that enable children to succeed in an increasingly automated world.

After all, it’s creativity that will set people apart from robots, and if we allow children to experience coding as a social and creative process at early age in a way that they can understand, we empower them to be the creators, rather than merely the passive consumers of technology – perhaps it’s a case of ‘program or be programmed . . . . . . ‘

 

Filippo Yacob

You can find more about Filippo Yacob’s ideas and his robot, Cubetto at Filippo’s new website:

Click on the image opposite to follow the link to Primo Toys.

 

 

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