Why kids under five must start learning to code

By Jo Bird

There’s a lot of pressure to learn coding in primary school to develop 21st century computational skills. But I think we should start in preschool.

Schools and governments recognise the need for teaching 21st century skills. We can see the evidence for that in the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics. But just as we teach preschool children the fundamentals of reading, we must now include computational thinking and coding.

While many early childhood services may have digital technologies, how they are presented and taught to young children, requires more focus and perhaps, upskilling of educators.

In my research we use cubettos. These are simple wooden square box robots with a smiley face that come with coding boards with colourful plastic pieces which make the robots move. We also uses bee-bots, small plastic bee-shaped robots with simple programming buttons on their backs, and blue-bots, clear cased bee-shaped robots that respond to commands sent from a computer or iPad.

I have been exploring how children learn to use them, and how educators support their use, as an extension to my PhD research. With 3-5 year olds, they realise that the pieces you put in the coding board, or the buttons you push, make the robots move in particular ways, and you can start explaining how they move and why they follow our commands.

Learning the basics of robotics at this age will set the foundation for primary school learning. It’s a great introduction to pre-maths, algorithms, counting and problem-solving: they learn this is the ‘recipe’ that moves the robots along.

While some early childhood education services have some robots to play with, what’s missing is the opportunity for richer learning that these devices offer.

Some educators will have a blue-bot or bee-bot and they might push the buttons to create a code for the children, but they’re not necessarily taking the next step to explaining the concept of coding.

The aim for my research is to think about the best way to equip educators to teach coding to pre-schoolers through play, for example whether it will be creating an instruction manual or workshop or something else.

Screens and play

Another aspect of technology is the use of screen technologies among the 3-5 year old age group, both real and replica or broken, which I call ‘imaginative’ technologies. Children want to use real technologies in play, but imaginative technologies are the next best thing. Children today live in a digital world and, given the opportunity, will readily use technology to meet their play needs.

Through my research, which has included interviewing 84 educators in the New England region alongside my colleague Dr Marg Rogers, I have found some educators are reluctant to incorporate real technologies into their classrooms for use by very young children.

Some educators and parents believe early use of technology will reduce their child’s creativity and imagination. Others encourage it. I have found with people holding such strong views, discussions on the subject can be a minefield.

Many services don’t provide real technology for children. They might use an iPad or camera, but it’s very controlled and directed, and the children are not given enough time with the technologies to develop skills and to learn.

The anxiety around using screens could also be further compounded and confused by current national guidelines on screen use.

National guidelines out of step

The current national guidelines recommend children under two are not exposed to any screen time. But this is really out of sync with home or modern life. So, it’s an interesting question for technology researchers like myself – do we follow the guidelines and not give technology to children? But children see technology and in their imaginative play, they want to copy what adults do.

They see people on phones, taking photos and typing on computers from an early age. How can you then have a ‘home corner’ in early childhood education centres that don’t have any of that? How many restaurants take orders on a phone or iPad? How can children re-enact what goes on in a restaurant without technology? Same with a doctor’s surgery or a supermarket. Technology is everywhere.

In a new research project, I will ask children aged 3-5 what they want in their imaginative play spaces and if they can make (out of recycled materials), what they need to in order to have an imaginative play space reflective of the real thing. For example, having iPads in a restaurant to take the orders or look up recipes. I believe real technologies also need to play a larger role in early childhood education.

And I don’t believe we can stop children accessing technologies.

I think it’s a bit disrespectful to not let children use technology in their play. How does it compute in their brains that technology is everywhere in their world, but they are not allowed to use or understand it? It must be confusing for them. I have found, educators need to support children’s technology use in positive ways. I’d like to see non screen-based coding, and iPads with select apps chosen for the learning that’s possible, including to document their own learning, in the preschool years.

Children need to learn how to use technologies and when it is appropriate to use them. Hopefully further research will help to guide the provision of technologies and guidelines for its use, support children’s ethical behaviour and reduce some of the discomfort educators and parents feel around the inclusion of working technologies in children’s lives.

Jo Bird is a senior lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale. Her PhD explored children’s use of digital technologies in imaginative play and the educators’ provision of the various devices, both working and imaginative. Her research interests include children’s play, the use of technologies by both children and educators and early childhood leadership. She loves presenting, both her research and inspiring others to use technologies in creative ways with children and to recognise their leadership worth.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

5 thoughts on “Why kids under five must start learning to code

  1. Max says:

    So much to say on this, but just one comment for now:
    “I think it’s a bit disrespectful to not let children use technology in their play. How does it compute in their brains that technology is everywhere in their world, but they are not allowed to use or understand it? ”

    Should we then allow pre-schoolers to drink alcohol, take recreational drugs, swear, drive cars, etc.? Of course not! But these things are “everywhere in their world”…

    Let them play, for goodness’ sake! How much more can the young brain discover and learn than by playing?

    Encourage enquiring minds, and allow use of devices where appropriate – but I see so many, many cases of computer illiterate teachers feeling they have to teach very young children some computer skills, without any apparently logical reason, and certainly no evidence that their lot is improved later in life!

    In the same way that bad teachers back in the day would have lessons comprising “read chapter 1 then answer questions 1 through 5” the use of tablets and computers in the classroom has an extraordinary danger of exacerbating this to “watch this youtube video tutorial and follow the instructions”

    For context, I am a Digital Technologies teacher in high school.

  2. Hello Max,
    Can we please expand the concept of technology. A hammer and nail is technology. So is a digging stick. So is a crayon, and painting brush, a see saw, a bicycle, a spade a fork and all other other tools etc etc. Human beings have created heaps of technology prior to this digital technology push. History helps us here. To truly benefit children they need TO DO technology (ie science) before they understand it. Physics (working with tools etc) , hydrology (playing with water) and pneumatology (working with air/flying things/sails/kites etc are so much the experiential science of the young child. Doing data should not usurp the foundations from which we have gradually become human. I’m keen on getting things in perspective and in an evolutionary order.

  3. Hi Jo,
    I wholeheartedly disagree with this idea.
    When the four foundation senses are not fully nourished a price is paid later on.
    The senses are: movement, touch, balance and joy of living.
    All my study, and practical experience as a primary school teacher, has led me to believe there is a time and place for everything. Coding in the early years for me is totally unnecessary. Their learning universe should be play in a material three dimensional world. The driver behind this kind of thinking may well be fear and ignorance.
    I am a private child development and remedial movement therapist. I’m seeing far too many children who are not bodily integrated and have not passed development milestones.

  4. Jo Bird says:

    We will have to disagree.

    My research is play and children use all their senses as they explore three dimensional robots. As I replied to Max, robots interest many children and if, through play, children can learn to code, then their skills in computational thinking will benefit many areas of their development.

    I have worked with preschoolers who coded a robot to move across the drawn map of their preschool yard to find treasure. They physically moved around and mapped the yard, drawing and labelling the various parts. As a small group of interested children, they moved the treasure and took turns to code the robot to move across the map to find the treasure and then they went outside to again follow the map to locate the treasure in their actual yard.

    How can you say that following the children’s interest in robots and the learning that ensued, is unnecessary?

  5. Jo Bird says:

    Thanks for your comments Max.

    I wholeheartedly agree, children need and want to play and it’s the philosophy I follow. Like I said, their play should represent what they experience, phones in home corners, computers in pretend doctors surgeries and iPads in restaurants. These are all imaginative technologies and are one side of my research.

    Also my research explores children learning to use robots through play. One aim of this research is to find ways to support educators to provide robots in ways that supports the children’s learning.

    Early childhood follows a child-cented pedagogy, which encourages and extends on children’s interests. Children are interested in robots and I am all for supporting this interest and working with interested educators to develop the skills they need to extend this interest.

    I disagree that there is no research about the benefits of children’s technology use. The findings being released from the Centre for the Digital Child (https://www.digitalchild.org.au/) shows many positive results, with longitudinal results starting to be presented.

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