Why Pre-K Computer Programming Should Be More Hands and Less Screen

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It sounds like a paradox. How can you teach computer programming without a screen? Computer programming is a term synonymous with coding, after all.

Text, letters, syntax, arranged in meaningful sequences that give machines instructions. We code with our keyboards and we see code on our screens.

But there is a clear distinction between coding and computer programming, and an even greater distinction between coding and computational thinking, the logical foundations of computer programming. It is basics of computational thinking that children in Pre-K should learn first, in fact, and they can be taught these skills through hands on play, with no screen time at all.

Before I argue why, though, I need to make something clear. I’m not anti-screen. Screen devices are ubiquitous, indispensable, and it seems that in some cases they can be useful in early years.

It’s for these reasons that at the end of last year, the American Association of Pediatricians (APP) revised its historically inflexible policy recommendation on screen time for the young. Their ‘Avoid at all costs!’ stance became something more nuanced.

Reliable evidence to support a strict anti-screen stance for children is hard to come by. Poor school performance, childhood obesity, and attention problems have all been linked to overuse of screens, but the research behind these claims, as Holly Korbey writes in the Atlantic, can be considered ‘thin’.

But not all screen-based learning is adequate. While it appears that active screen learning is more effective than passive screen-based learning, there’s still not enough information to support screen-based learning as majorly beneficial on its own. Yet a growing number of educational institutions across the States are using iPads; a 2013 survey of K-12 students showed that 48 percent had used a tablet during class.

This is where your “old fashioned” hands-on learning comes in. The benefits of hands-on learning among preschool children is well-supported. There is a compelling history of thinking and analysis to support it, not to mention all the history when we had no computers, which makes it worth protecting, promoting, and adapting to the needs of the future, such as computational thinking.

For instance, Jean Piaget’s revolutionary notion of discovery learning, which asserts that children ‘learn best through doing and actively exploring’, has transformed the UK’s primary school curriculum.

Similarly, Maria Montessori’s assertion that “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” still carries weight. In an email exchange with Dr Sarah Gerson, an academic at the University of Cardiff’s Psychology Department, a colleague of mine asked what she thought were the pros of hands-on learning over screen learning, she responded: ‘The social and interactive nature of hands-on experiences makes them more engaging and richer sources of information.’

Indeed, researchers have conducted numerous experiments to explore the link between hands-on play in early life and academic ability later on, many of which point to the benefits that play has in stimulating parts of the brain which encourage development of key skills.

A 2012 study by the University of Chicago found that hands-on play with puzzles helped the development of “cognition that has been implicated in success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics”. Similarly, the University of Washington’s Dimitri Christakis has extensively researched the positive effect that playing with building blocks as a child has on stimulating the brain’s capability to learn and develop language skills.

So why shouldn’t we use such effective and well established learning methods to teach pre-schoolers a digital skill like programming? After all, computational thinking is based around a set of basic, but purposeful sequences and instructions.

Through “schema” play, as Piaget called it, young children can be taught patterns of behaviour with game play, and the same patterns can then be applied to different, more advanced situations and environments. This way, complex mathematical ideas in computer science, like algorithms, the queue, recursions, and debugging, can be introduced through tangible interfaces - no screen necessary.

Take the ingenious programming language Logo, created in 1960 by the grandfather of educational programming Seymour Papert. The user writes commands for movement and drawing to produce line graphics either on screen or with a small robot—a turtle armed with a pen. Papert offered two options for playing and learning: on screen and off. For the first time, a child could play and learn complex programming by focusing on a screenless, creative outcome.

Papert believed his approach was about giving children “objects to think with”. This meant giving them the freedom to play with objects which have certain functions and purposes, fostering a way of thinking through kinaesthetic experiences, and once mastered, this way of thinking could be further developed and applied to real life situations.

So this riddle of less screen, more programming, at pre-K can be cracked. The growth of so-called ‘coding toys’ that teach children the basics of computational thinking through hands on play is proof of this.

I’m not anti-screen, but when it comes to teaching programming, there’s a strong and growing case for a hands-on approach. By understanding this, we can provide children with distinct and multiple ways of learning core skills in computer science, arming them for an increasingly digital future by equipping them to program their physical worlds. 

Filippo Yacob is co-founder and CEO of Primo Toys.

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