Saturday, May 6, 2017

Thinking in Algorithms: Why kids need to code in kindergarten

Kids already have too much screen time.
Isn't coding just another buzz word in education right now?
I don't have time to learn something new.
My kids play too many video games.
I don't believe in using technology in the kindergarten classroom.

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 2017 ETFO Innovate Conference in rainy Niagara Falls. Each year ETFO AQ instructors meet for two days of rich collaboration, inspiration and networking. We are online instructors and as a result, embrace technology in our personal and professional practices. I will state upfront that I write this post as a biased educator and mother; teaching children for lives in an unknown future, I believe that we have an obligation to consider what 21st century competencies are and how we can immerse our children in robust and authentic educational experiences that infuse their lives with motivation and passion.

I have been speaking a lot lately about the importance of coding in the kindergarten classroom. This past year I had a vivacious group of children who ventured on a journey with me to explore how we could use coding in our math and storytelling activities. Over the last 8 months these children have become proficient using unplugged coding manipulatives (e.g., grids, props, directional cards) in order to engage in complex math games and retell/innovate favourite texts. This has sparked much interest in how we can use coding to enrich one’s existing math and literacy program by outsiders to our program.

My love of math and coding was heightened this weekend after listening to the inspirational Brian Aspinall (@mraspinall) speak about his experiences using coding and technology in the classroom. He challenged us to consider how we might use “technology as a language of learning” to motivate children.

“Coding is the new literacy helping students communicate their ideas to others.” 

He pressed upon the importance of encouraging our children to communicate using complex ways in a digital age and to “think in algorithms” in all aspects of their day.

Brian instilled a sense of urgency in me. I believe that coding is an important foundational skill that all children have a right to learn. If we introduce unplugged coding games in kindergarten then children will learn to speak and use that language fluently in their daily lives. Just as emergent spaces encourage children to personalize their learning through multifaceted sensory experiences, technology gives children one more of the ‘hundreds of languages’ through which to explore, experiment and communicate their ideas to others.

Although however essential coding might be, in my travels I have found that there is still some reluctance for infusing our early childhood spaces with technology. Confusing coding as passive, entertainment-style gaming, many worry that it will be a harmful distraction in the kindergarten classroom. That fear, coupled with an inspiring few days spent with tech-minded educators, inspired this blog post explaining what I feel are the many reasons why children in kindergarten need to learn to code.

Why code in kindergarten?

Coding is everywhere. Most appliances and everyday household items require code in order to work - your fridge, car, and even washing machine use code. When children learn coding in school they acquire a sense of how the world around them functions. In inquiry-based spaces educators hope that children will look deeply at their surroundings through a lens of curiosity. Coding helps them explore something more deeply and consider how it works, and how it might be modified to work in a different way.

Coding is easy. An educator does not need to know computer programming in order to use coding activities. Starting slowly and exploring together with the children will model curiosity and a willingness to take risks while helping teacher-learners build community and knowledge in a safe and supportive space.

Coding is cost-effective.
In a time of reduced budgets and tech-constraints, unplugged coding in kindergarten requires no computers in order to be successful. All one needs is a grid, arrow cards, and small props (e.g., blocks, animal figures). These materials can be easily made or found around the classroom and are transportable to other areas of the school (e.g., hallway, outdoors).

Coding activities naturally incorporate 21st century skills like collaboration, creativity, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving. Children who code learn to speak a new language. They quickly realize that their directions need to be clear and precise in order to have fun and be successful in the coding play. Children learn to strategize as coding play becomes more complex and obstacles and challenges are added to their games. Algorithms that don’t work out build resiliency and persistence as children try new sequences and use mistakes as learning opportunities.

Coding integrates learning opportunities from multiple domains of development. In our world of dense curriculum and overwhelming assessment demands, it's essential that educators weave together expectations from different subjects and strands. Not only does this make the classroom a richer place to be, integrating subjects often engages children and make learning deeper and more authentic. Coding has the potential to use expectations from math, science, literacy, the arts, and physical education depending on the context.

Coding is a social activity that builds communication and relationships. Each person in the activity has a special role to play and these roles must work together in order to be successful. The directions given by the programmer must be clear and succinct and followed precisely by all players involved. Children work together to create more complex coding paths and play from one day can be continued into the next. Coding strengthens children's oral language as they describe movement while giving and receiving directions.

Coding provides opportunities for children to engage in meaningful, problem-based math that is highly engaging and of relevance to their lives. These activities integrate spatial awareness, reasoning and number sense into a highly motivating opportunity for applying math in a realistic situation that can then be transferred to a coding application (e.g., Scratch Jr., Scratch) when children are ready. The math is often complex and layered.

Coding is empowering. Learning how to program a game or animation is a very entertaining and enjoyable activity for children. Today’s kindergarten classrooms are maker spaces filled with opportunities for children to engage in the problem-solving process by manipulating loose parts in order to create. Coding is no different but in place of tangible objects that can be tinkered with, children who code are digital makers.

Coding is versatile and can be easily adapted to activities in the gym and outside learning spaces, captivating kinesthetic learners and adding another dimension to physical activities. It is an easy to adapt activity that is fun to play outside or on a very large grid. Children can code one another to move around a space or use the change in scenery to inspire a new programming narrative.

Coding can be extended with technology such as easy to use apps, websites, and robots for those who want to delve more deeply into the concepts (or for those subsequent teachers who have these children in grade 1 and beyond). Many of these are available as free apps or websites and can be suggested to families who want activities that promote home-school connections.

Coding is a global phenomenon and connects your students to their community and beyond! Educators can create their own personal learning networks by connecting with others on Twitter (#coding, #code, #program, #kindercoding). Classes can participate in the Hour of Code or learn new skills by visiting Children can tweet what they are doing to others. There is worldwide support and encouragement for educators who are embracing new and exciting ways of learning including using coding as a language of communication with young children!

Ready to get started? Learn how here: Creating Coding Stories and Games TYC Volume 10 (3)

Let's connect! If you code with kids, tweet me @McLennan1977 and tag it #kindercoding. Let's create an amazing network of kindercoders out there and support each other on this journey!

"When you learn to read and write, it opens up opportunities for you to learn so many other things. When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. It's the same thing with coding. If you learn to code, you can code to learn." 
Mitch Resnick


  1. I find this intriguing and I appreciate you giving me something to consider with my own JK class. I look forward to reading more here and on the links you have given.

  2. Love this idea of coding without screens. Where can I learn more about how to set up the graphs you have pictured in the classroom? Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  3. Thanks Kurt! This article that I published in TYC last fall outlines how to get started with coding in the early years. Hope it helps! There is also some great information out there on twitter @McLennan1977


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