Computational thinking is a logic and problem-solving process that pairs skills like perseverance and collaboration with concepts like algorithms and loops so that students can build solutions that could be carried out by a computer. As many schools are learning, weaving computational thinking and computer science education into curricula, even at the elementary level, can result in learning experiences that are both valuable and engaging—and that foster diversity in STEM.
Many educators assume that integration requires screen time for students, but that’s not always the case: Unplugged computational thinking activities that require zero screen time can build the knowledge and confidence that students need to participate in computing spaces and be absorbing for students. There are actually a host of screen-free activities that prompt elementary students to problem-solve, work with peers to build solutions, and use logical thought processes.
The Learning and Technologies Collaborative at the University of Minnesota, Bloomington Public Schools, and the nonprofit Code Savvy utilize the following strategies to prioritize joy, equity, and skills within our computer science education activities at the elementary level.
Computational thinking can boost cognition with physical activity through logic games and movement. Start by marking a 6-by-6 floor grid with tape or chalk and have students “program” their peers as robots by giving them directional language and ordinal numbers to get to a specific square or around obstacles placed on the grid—for example, “Forward three steps” or “Turn once.” Increase the size of the grid to make the activity more challenging.
Or you can turn this activity into a game called Uncharted Territory, where the goal is to get the whole group across the grid to safety. First, a student programmer designs a specific path across the grid on a piece of paper. The rest of the students (“explorers”) begin at a starter square and try one at a time to move square by square across the grid until they take a wrong step off the programmer’s path—then the student programmer sends them to the end of the line. Watching attentively from the side, the student explorers try to remember the path their group members took before them. The group of explorers can help each other, but they can’t use verbal communication—only hand signals or directional cards.
Educators and students can also take Simon says to the next level by adding conditionals to the game. For example, the student programmer can command their robot peers: “If I hop up and down, then you do jumping jacks.” The programmer can layer multiple conditionals for their robot peers to remember or add conditionals within conditionals such as, “If you do jumping jacks, then you sing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider.’”
Books and Literature
There is a growing list of picture books that focus on computer science and computational thinking through storytelling. One of the most popular series is Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby, which follows a young girl and her animal friends as she explores what a computer is and how computing processes like events, conditionals, and algorithms are incorporated into our everyday lives. Each colorful chapter explores different concepts and has many unplugged activities for students to practice.
In addition to computing concepts, students benefit from practicing computational thinking skills like perseverance. Cindy Phan Wong, an elementary and technology teacher, wrote Clara Perseveres, which follows a young girl and her brother through a series of everyday activities. Clara gets frustrated and wants to quit, but her brother, Ben, encourages her with tips on how to persist, like taking breaths or asking for a hint. These tips can be posted in the classroom as a reference during problem-solving activities so that students are reminded to try them out when they feel like giving up during complex and difficult activities.
Physical computing through robotics is a great way to teach computational thinking, as it is motivating, interactive, collaborative, and tangible because students can see their robot moving, which makes coding concepts and processes more concrete than they are onscreen. There are many educational robots that have sensors that can read students’ code in different formats but do not require a computer or tablet to program.
One of our favorites at Bloomington Public Schools is Kibo, a robot that scans codes off of cubical blocks that students string together to make a sequence. Kibo has many accessories and can record sounds, light up, and sense distance. Try using a Kibo in language arts by having students decorate it as a character and re-create scenes from a book. (As of this writing, Kibo kits start at $220.)
Another screen-free robot is Blue-Bot, which is programmed through directional buttons on its back. Use Bluebot to collaboratively solve puzzles by assigning roles with groups: One student creates a maze for their peers, a second student creates a sequence using paper direction cards that match the buttons on the robot, a third then inputs the sequence by pressing the buttons on the robot, and a fourth debugs or problem-solves if the sequence is incorrect. (As of this writing, Blue-Bots start at $90.)
Similarly, the Ozobot reads code by scanning lines that students made on paper with colored markers. Students use different-colored patterns to make the robot change speeds, turn, and change the color of its LED lights. Try using a single Ozobot (as of this writing, $175) to have students design a board game within any content area, using the robot as a game piece.