How Early Is Too Early to Teach Computer Science?
Parents and teachers are concerned about young kids getting too much screen time. Should they allow any? Will kids fall behind if they aren’t allowed much screen time?
How and when should youngsters learn how to use computers, learn about computer science, and start developing skills that eventually lead to coding? These are all valuable competencies that will serve them well in the high-tech workplace someday. But do kids really need to start getting prepared for the jobs of the future as early as kindergarten?
Good news for concerned adults: It is possible to teach computer science concepts to very young kids—without using computers at all!
What is Computational Thinking?
Computational thinking (CT) is “thinking like a computer scientist.” It is the thinking and the skills involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solution(s) in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can carry out. Computational thinking is the foundation of computer science, and includes problem analysis and decomposition, algorithmic thinking and expression, functions and abstraction, and debugging. These may sound like complex concepts, but these are all skills that are well within the grasp of young kids to not only comprehend, but to enjoy.
Computational Thinking ‘Unplugged’
During gym, recess, or play time, adults can make fun challenges for kids that lay the foundation for coding skills. Here are a few examples:
- Problem Analysis: Supply your kids with blocks, a piece of wood, balls and colored tape. Challenge them to use the blocks to build a ramp for the ball to roll down that will make the ball reach a line of tape that is placed a short distance away.
- Algorithmic Thinking: Help your kids to describe, step by step, a simple task such as eating cereal. Without knowing it, they’ll be exploring important coding concepts like sequencing (put cereal in bowl and then put in milk), loops (chew each bite of cereal 20 times) and conditionals (if the bowl is empty, stop eating).
- Patterns and Pattern Recognition: Make a sound pattern with rhythm instruments, or even more simply, with a pot and spoon. Start out by making a pattern that your child can copy back. BANG, BANG, tap, BANG, BANG, tap . . .
You may already be doing some of these with your kids already, without realizing that they are learning computational thinking.
A Solid Foundation Lasts Into Later Life
Why start kids early? Kids who take computer science classes later in school have a tremendous advantage if they’re already comfortable with core programming concepts such as algorithms and debugging. Developing these skills early gives them confidence to tackle harder and harder challenges as their education and life experiences progress.
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Image by flickr user Amelia Wells, licensed under Creative Commons
Is there longitudinal research data to back up the last paragraph?
Thanks so much for your question. I haven’t found conclusive longitudinal data showing that students who develop CS skills early have an easier time learning more complex CS concepts later, yet many papers and writings assert this. For example, “Computing in the national curriculum” paper by NAACE (http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/CASPrimaryComputing.pdf). For now I’m on the bandwagon because it seems logical that the skills will transfer, but I am waiting for more conclusive evidence before promoting this idea strongly.
The idea that developing CS skills early helps students generally tackle harder and harder challenges is one of the core concepts behind the research of more and more psychologists, perhaps the most outspoken one being Angela Duckworth (https://angeladuckworth.com/)
I don’t think there’s really any such thing as “too early”… I mean, it’s not like you’re going to hurt a child by trying to teach it computer science concepts when it’s too young to comprehend them.
You may think about it all you want. The sooner you teach keyboarding and all the letters & symbols of the keyboard, the sooner you can teach coding. Screen time and using technology is about discipline. Do we stop tactile learning at an early age? Of course not. Students today have to be directly taught that computers today are the pencils of yesterday. We don’t throw pencils or keep them in a pocket…