Despite the general concept that coding is difficult, children can learn the basics of coding more easily than most people think. Even preschool children can understand basic coding concepts, even if they don't know what they mean in detail.
So how can coding be designed for preschoolers? We all regularly use coding concepts without realising it. It seems surprising that almost everything people do in everyday life can be used as an example to teach children the concept of computer coding:
baking cakes, preparing breakfast, putting on clothes, brushing teeth, and much more. All these activities are practical algorithms that are carried out daily and that are very well suited to be used in ECEC centres as examples of coding.
The basic coding concepts are presented below using simple examples, which can be easily used in ECEC centres. Neither a computer nor any other digital medium is necessary to convey these basic principles.
Concept 1 – Algorithm
When trying to introduce children to the subject of coding, it is a good idea to start with a lesson on algorithms. The word algorithm will not be familiar to a five-year-old, but it is a daily concept and easy to understand.
An algorithm is an instruction to perform a particular task and to achieve the desired result. It describes the sequence or arrangement of commands or work steps.
A computer programmer therefore writes an algorithm to tell the computer HOW to perform a particular task in order to achieve the desired result. It uses certain elementary instructions, such as sequence, loop, or branch.
Achievement Always Requires a Sequence of Steps
Watch this short video to see algorithms are part of our everyday life (an automatic subtitle can be set in the YouTube video under Settings).
Think with the children about the order in which they should get dressed. You wouldn't put on your socks over your trainers or your T-Shirt over your sweater. When getting dressed, certain steps are followed so that you are properly dressed at the end.
Let the children develop an algorithm for getting dressed in which they paint the individual steps in the appropriate order on paper.
Children know the principle of instructions and their order in their daily lives: getting up, brushing their teeth, going to ECEC centres, returning home, taking off their clothes, putting on slippers, etc. Based on these examples, you can explain algorithms
to the children with words that they understand well.
Draw the children's attention to how often they encounter orders/algorithms in their everyday lives. In addition to the routines already described, such as brushing their teeth or getting dressed, activities such as building blocks, handicrafts or
cooking are also algorithms. Let the children tell you the individual work steps.
Handling algorithms can be supported very well with the help of photos by capturing the individual steps, e.g. during baking, in pictures. These can then be hung or laid out in the appropriate order.
Template “Find the Algorithm”
Concept 2 - Instruction and sequence
Instructions and sequences belong to the elementary building blocks of an algorithm. Explaining this concept to children is very easy.
Basically, it means that a task is done in a certain order. The sequence of the task is sorted very precisely with the help of several instructions. A single task given to a child or a single order is called an instruction. A single instruction is e.g. "get up" or "go 10 steps". If you receive several instructions in a row, it is a sequence, e.g. "go 10 steps", "turn left", "go 5 steps".
The completion of certain tasks in the appropriate order is one of the core competences that children learn in many areas, which makes the introduction to coding possible across disciplines. It is therefore not necessary to create extra time for teaching
coding in the existing daily routine.
You can include an exercise on the subject of instructions and sequences in your pedagogical everyday life while you read a book to the children or look at a book together. Try to break the story down into episodes (instructions) together (the order of
the episodes is a sequence). You can ask the children, for example, to bring the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood into the correct sequence of steps by using various pictures of the fairy tale. This way the children will learn to understand the
sequence of a story.
Concept 3 – Loop
When talking with children about the term "loop", they certainly already have an idea of it in their head. It is something that always rotates in a circle, i.e. repeats itself.
If sequences, i.e. several instructions in succession are to be repeated several times, again and again or until a certain condition is fulfilled, then we have a loop.
Here, too, it is helpful to resort to everyday life in order to explain the concept of loop to children. There are things that children do every day, i.e. repeat every day: brushing their teeth, having dinner, going to ECEC centre and much more. These
activities are carried out in a certain order/algorithm.
With the help of loops, the computer algorithm, but also our daily life becomes simpler and more efficient. For example, children are only told to get dressed before they go to play in the garden, as they do every day. The ECEC professional no longer
explains to the children the individual steps in which order they should put on which piece of clothing.
See the difference between sequence, selection an loop explained in this video (an automatic subtitle can be set in the YouTube video under Settings).
Concept 4 – Decomposition
Computer programmers break down complex steps and arrange them in order. This process is called decomposition and is one of the cornerstones of coding.
Decomposition means that problems are broken down into manageable and smaller units. For a computer, this means that it is given tasks to perform in pieces that are so small that it can understand them.
Encourage children to break down everyday activities into small steps. Let the children explain to you, for example, how to brush your teeth. It is easy to say that you take your toothbrush and brush your teeth. Get the kids to think of smaller steps:
first you take water, then you take the toothbrush, then you put toothpaste on the toothbrush, then you add some water, then you lead the toothbrush to the teeth and scrub the brush on the teeth back and forth, and so on. Of course, this action
must be repeated as often as necessary until it is completed. There are many steps in brushing teeth.
Template “Role play to practice algorithms”
Concept 5 – branch
Structures in which instructions are executed when certain conditions are fulfilled and other instructions when these conditions are not fulfilled are called branches. So, a decision is made about what happens and what doesn't.
In order to explain the concept of branching to children, you can use their daily routine. Every day the children get up, have breakfast, brush their teeth, go to the ECEC centre, come home from the ECEC centre, play, have dinner, brush their teeth, get
a book read to them and go to sleep. However, this daily routine can be different on Thursday from other days of the week, because the child goes to music school in the afternoon, for example.
Let the children explain their normal daily routine to you. Then ask them: "But what happens if you have dance lessons on Tuesday after ECEC centre?" or "On Friday you go to play with a friend and have dinner there. What does that mean? This way the children
will understand the term "branch".
Concept 6 – Debugging
Debugging is basically the process of resolving a problem that is encountered while instructions are given to reach a particular goal.
Background Information – Bug:
Bugs are programme or software errors that cause computer programmes to behave unintentionally or unexpectedly. The term bug is associated with the scientist Grace Murray Hopper
(1906-1992), who discovered a dead moth as a cause of error in a partially electromechanical computer (Mark II).
Share your knowledge about the creation of bug with children. They will certainly find it funny.
When you talk to children about the concept of debugging, they need to understand that it is the resolution of a potential problem. The teaching of this concept is suitable for ECEC because it teaches skills that go far beyond basic coding skills. These
include skills that are essential for the children's future, such as problem solving and resilience.
A good example of explaining the concept of debugging to children is to give them a task to do in a certain order and deliberately include an error. So, write a "sequence" and set a step wrong. The children will notice that they will not reach their goal
and will have to find out for themselves where the error lies and correct it.
Debugging, however, is not the easiest concept to understand. Some children can get impatient if they don't get the answer immediately. But in computer coding this concept plays a big role and learning it can also be very helpful in daily life.
Example of Algorithm – Brushing Teeth (Simplified)
All the concepts of coding presented are important for children, not only for coding, but also for learning everyday skills that can be useful to them throughout their lives. Therefore, it is advisable to start teaching younger children about coding.
For children, beautiful books for reading with great exercises, which are also very suitable for ECEC centres, are the books around the protagonist Ruby. So far, the young author Linda Liukas has
published four "Hello Ruby" books translated into over 22 languages, all of which are imaginative and child-friendly about the world of computers and coding.
Click on the picture to get to the “Hello Ruby” homepage:
“Hello Ruby” Books offer Opportunities to Practise Coding Skills
1. How can you explain sequence, loop, and branch to young children?
2. What is an algorithm referring to simple everyday tasks?
3. How can decomposition facilitate young children?