Toying with Tech: Early Coding and Computational Thinking in a Museum Setting

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This blog post was written by TEC Center’s 20161-7 Informal Education Intern, Jessica Kubacki

Toying with Tech

Children giving and responding to directions to code their way through a maze.

What is coding and why are many educators introducing coding to young children? There are mixed messages about the influence that coding skills will have for a child. We hear that all children need to learn to code for their future careers. “Coding is the language of the future,” is another common line. Coding fosters many higher order thinking (HoT) skills and executive functions, including problem-solving, critical thinking, spatial planning, adaptation, and reflecting. HoT skills do not develop from the sole use of technology. While coding fosters its development,it is critical that children learn these foundational thinking skills through a variety of experiences while engaging with adults and peers in meaningful ways.

I held a dual-internship as a graduate student at Erikson to develop a new partnership between the TEC Center and Kohl Children’s Museum (KCM). The goal of my internship project was to design a technology and early coding program for young children in the museum as part of their STEAM initiative. The objective of this program is to allow children to begin to learn computation thinking and coding skills without a technology device, integrate developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) and make an accessible learning experience for all children. Creating an early coding program in an informal setting meant thinking about adult and children’s developmental differences and experiences with computational thinking. It also creates a unique environment in which parents, caregivers, and siblings will collaborate to learn these skills together.

Having a background in child development, and being a former educator of children with special needs, accessibility was a critical component as I designed Toying with Tech. The children attending these programs ranged in ages as young as age 2 up to age 8. I knew that each child and adult that stopped in to play would come in with different knowledge and experiences with digital media. At the time KCM did not have wifi available for programming so using online materials to support the teaching of these concepts was not possible. This mirrors similar circumstances that many families and early childhood programs still face and one of my main objectives was to design methods and materials for learning computational thinking and early coding that are accessible to all families and educators.

While the museum had some tangible technology, such as Robot Mouse and KIBO, for coding readily available for programming, I wanted to explore concepts of accesibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create an environment to practice deeper learning. With consideration to UDL and DAP I decided to take a primarily unplugged, whole-body interaction approach to early coding. This led to the development of Toying with Tech.

While developing Toying with Tech, I broke down foundational skills of coding into five domains. Each domain had three to five supporting activities. The first four domains were computational thinking skills that young children are already working on during childhood. Each month the program focused on a different domain while including play, movement, exploration, and parent/family engagement. Domain 5: Exploring Coding Digitally was the children’s first introduction to screens during Toying with Tech.

5 Domains of Early Coding and a supporting activity:

  1. Giving and Following Directions
    • Bugs in a Maze: Children gave siblings or adults directions to walk through a maze while avoiding the bugs. Children corrected their paths by debugging.
  2. Cause & Effect
    • If, Then Statements: Children gave each other directions using the phrase “If I Do this (action), then you do this/that (action). Example: “If I jump, then you jump” or “If I clap then you dance.”
  3. Sequencing and Symbols
    • Arrows: Children and families explored creating sequences with arrow cards to jump or walk out a code, while developing directionality and understanding symbols.
  4. Engineering and Constructing
    • Mazes: Children worked in groups with adults to create a maze with loose parts, such as Duplo blocks, Magna Tiles, cardboard, etc. Then they coded Robot Mouse to make its way through the design.
  5. Exploring Coding
    • Scratch Jr: Introduction to block coding in a digital space,
    • KIBO: Provided a screen-free opportunity to code a robot with symbols as well as “If, Then” statements. 

Children at KCM giving each other directions to code their way through a maze.

The technology initiative at Kohl Children’s Museum allows the introduction to early coding to support development across cognitive domains. Children worked on early numeracy or bridging the T+M in STEM while practicing patterns, order, shapes, and counting. Children practiced cognitive flexibility through problem-solving as well as displaying theory of mind while developing symbolic representations. One of the most powerful skills I saw displayed came from social learning. The collaboration came through in each domain. Children who had never met before were able to collaborate and create instantly. They were coding through play and actions, unplugged, while still developing these esteemed “21st” century learning skills.

For 5 tips and ideas for how to introduce Higher Order Thinking and Computational Thinking to young children check out TEC Center associate director, Tamara Kaldor’s, blog post on The T in STEM for NAEYC.

Visit Toying with Tech at Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview, IL


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