Coding in the early years, why and how to start

There is an increased demand for technology integration in the early years’ curriculum.

But what does this actually mean for young learners? More screen time for young kids, and less traditional play and contact with their peers? Actually no, the goal of technology integration in the curriculum is to maximise learning and not maximise technology usage.

Any educator who has worked alongside with young students has observed how easy it is for them to implement technological elements in their projects. From using the classroom tablets, to using software like scratch jr. and creating their own simple machines, young learners need less time to understand how to use technology.

Unfortunately, it is the case that the ability and the interest that young students have to create, to “make” things are not always met in the curriculum.

Modern education worldwide aims at developing skills connected to creativity, problem solving and communication, alongside building the characteristics connected to social  awareness and empathy. The diagram below, from the World Economic Forum, illustrates the connections.

Many researchers and organisations have given the characteristics of a revolution to the rapid progress of technology; the world economic forum describe this growth as the  forth industrial revolution.

Even though most of the time we do not realise it, digital applications now manage nearly every aspect of our lives, both in our personal and professional lives, and it is clear that we can only guess how different the world will be in the next decades. The reality is that we prepare our students for a world that does not yet exist and to do so, we are using recourses that will be considered outdated in only a few years from now.

Therefore, understanding the principles behind technology gives us the ability to easily adapt to technological changes and it gives us freedom to use it as a tool to leverage and support our needs.

Why learn code?

We want learners to create as well as consume, understand as well as use, have knowledge on how things work. A knowledgeable person can deal with uncertainty but also he is more likely to invent something new.

Learning to code is about developing computational thinking.  Computational thinking aims to prepare young learners to become computational thinkers who understand how to use today’s digital tools to help solve tomorrow’s problems. (ISTE Standards 2016).

Some of the attitudes related to computational thinking that are essential to young learners are confidence in dealing with complexity, ambiguity, being persistent in working with difficult problems and the ability to communicate and work with others.

Learning to code is not only about computers

Computer Science is not just for the big kids in High School; coding is considered by many researchers as a new type of literacy and should be available to everyone, starting at a young age.

A common misconception that people have, sometimes educators too, is that coding and computers science in general is all about how to use computers.

Computational thinking is a problem-solving process and it is the foundation of computer science. In Edsger  Dijksrta’s words “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”.

Coding is a language and has its root in mathematics.

What does it look like in the early years’ classroom?

As an early years teacher there are many aspects of my teaching practice that are built upon the “how does it work?” question.

The curiosity of young learners is the foundation on which they will build upon the understanding of the world around them.

Coding, as mentioned before, is a language but also is the answer to the “how does it work?” question.

Having students wonder, explore and brainstorm about the ways things work is linked to many  academic “standards” and “skills”, but most importantly it is fun and engaging.

Children love to explore how things work by observing, playing and, why not, breaking things.

Going back to computational thinking as a problem-solving process, students explore, collaborate, reflect and finally discover the solution. It is through that process that they construct knowledge. Playing games where we are “coding” each other as robots, developing a plan to programme bee-bots to go from one place on the map to another, and playing with software like scratch jr. is fun and meaningful at the same time.

When students are working together on coding activities, they are not only introduced to the logic behind coding but also they are learning how to formulate problems in a way that enables them to use tools to solve problems.

When students explore the differences between different “commands” and how to use them, they are introduced to algorithmic thinking, (a series of ordered steps).

In the classroom sometimes we organize challenges where students need to code  a Lego robot to perform a specific task with time limitation. When they are working together they identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resourses.

There are some great resourses for teachers who would like to start coding activities in their classrooms. Some of them help to introduce coding and computer science without even using any computers.