The following is adapted from First Time Coders.
Coding is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular languages. Fluency in this language can open many doors for your child in the future, and like any other language, it’s best to start learning it early. Kids as young as four and five can begin learning—and enjoying—to code.
Of course, learning to code as a preschooler is much different than learning as a high schooler. As parents and teachers, we need to be thoughtful in how we teach and encourage young children to code.
In this article, I will guide you through age-appropriate learning objectives and programming tools so you can ensure that a child’s first introduction to coding is both educational and enjoyable. Let’s begin by looking at how preschoolers learn, so that we can tailor our teaching methods to be most effective.
How Preschoolers Learn: The Importance of Play
Children at the preschool level are still in the physical exploration stage. They like to touch and see objects. They like to use their imagination and pretend that objects are alive, so having something physical for them to manipulate helps them to conceptualize on an intuitive level.
Jean Piaget, a psychologist known for his theory on child development, states that the play of children in the two- to seven-year age range becomes increasingly imaginary and filled with fantasies. As the child develops, the play does too. It moves from simple make-believe to more complex plots. Stories have more characters, and games are created with sophisticated rules. Piaget believes that playing isn’t just fun; it is an important part of brain development.
Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences. Visual learning and storytelling help young children model behaviors and internalize how they feel. This experiential learning is full of movement, imagination, and self-directed play.
Because coding is quite an abstract concept, using physical tools and storytelling help make it concrete through experiences and with context. Incorporating play into a child’s coding education not only makes it easier for them to learn but also ensures that the experience is enjoyable, which is one of the key learning objectives for this age range.
The overall objective for this age group is introducing them to and inspiring their interest in coding. They should come away from the instruction feeling like it was a fun and magical experience. They should have a sense of pride that they started with an image in their mind and implemented it in a way that they can visually see the results. They should leave the coding exercise with a concrete sense of achievement.
Students at this age can learn to write and read simple code and how to solve some common bugs. An example is the act of programming a robot to first move in one direction and then stop and change direction. If the robot goes right instead of left, the student should be able to go back and identify which piece of their “code” went wrong.
There are three educational objectives at this age:
- Make robots follow instructions. With instructor guidance, students can program robots to move in real life. This internalizes abstract concepts such as loops and functions, and gradually leads to more advanced programming concepts.
- Learn through play. Through visual learning, students are trained to develop skills in observation (“The robot is moving”), recognition (recall what happened—”I have seen the robot move before!”), interpretation (“The robot is moving because we programmed it”), perception (“What might happen next?”), and self-expression (“This is where I want my robot to go”).
- Understand coding. Students learn that through dragging and dropping blocks on a screen, they can command a robot to move. This is in essence the simplest form of coding, which is to create accurate commands for computers.
Cubetto, Osmo Coding, Ozobot, and Electric Dough are great tools for this age range. For most of these tools, children can build without using a computer or mobile device, which is ideal for parents of young children who are concerned about too much screen time. A child will learn logical thinking skills and build something fun on their own or in a small group.
Cubetto is a small, cube-shaped, screenless robot that looks like a wooden box. Inspired by Montessori theories and the early programming language Logo Turtle, Cubetto operates without a screen and instead has hidden wheels and is commanded from a wooden slate on which colorful blocks can be placed. Each colorful block represents an action or command that can be combined to create programs. When the child arranges the blocks and presses “play,” the robot then follows the command blocks.
Cubetto creates a playful, hands-on environment for children to program a robot without using a screen. The children interact with Cubetto and experience a magical feeling of having moved the robot with their own imagination through the use of the wooden code blocks. They’re learning the core concept of computer programming, which is commanding a computer to do something that they want it to do.
Osmo Coding is a game that combines the iPad and physical play pieces. After putting an iPad in a base station and attaching a mirror unit over the front-facing camera, the area in front of the tablet becomes the play area. Play pieces, including letter tiles, number tiles, and puzzle shapes, are then recognized within the app. This tool can bridge the hands-on aspect of coding with the introduction of a smart device, and illustrates basic logic and how instructional codes build.
Ozobot is an app-connected robot that can be programmed both with an app “OzoBlockly” and Color Codes. The digital and analog functionality make it an interactive tool for children to understand the abstract computer programming concepts in a more visual way.
Electric Dough is a play dough that conducts electricity. Also known as “Squishy Circuits,” it was first developed in the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas. Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, who led the creation of the product, is an advocate in hands-on learning and teaches classes on machine design, product design, and PreK-12 engineering.
While not directly teaching coding, electric dough helps expose this age group to creative tinkering. This nifty tool introduces young children to circuits and electricity—two concepts that are important in the overall understanding of science and coding. It effectively replaces soldering irons or circuit boards, which might be dangerous for young learners’ hands, which are not yet as dexterous.
How Parents Can Help
Participate in the process—play. For kids at this young age, parents need to understand that play is learning, and vice versa. Participating in that playful learning is one of the best things you can do as a parent in cultivating a child’s interest in coding.
Incorporate it into family game time. Many tools for this age group include robots or other physical objects that can be programmed. They come with activities or projects that can be fun for the entire family to do. Building together can be a powerful learning experience for your child.
Teaching children to code can be fun for teachers, parents, and the children, and there’s no question that programming is a valuable skill to possess. As technology advances, coding fluency will become as important as fluency in one’s native language.
Just as you read to a young child to develop language skills and encourage a love for books, you should also teach them to code at a young age. By incorporating play into early coding education, both teachers and parents can encourage children’s interest in coding and set them up for success in future studies.
For more advice on how to teach coding to kids, including many fun, age-appropriate practice exercises, you can find First Time Coders on Amazon.