June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Never Too Young To Code

Kindergartners use Bee-Bots to explore coding and mapping skills at the Cook School Photos courtesy of Catherine Cook School

Kindergartners use Bee-Bots to explore coding and mapping skills at the Cook School
Photos courtesy of Catherine Cook School

 As with other aspects of tech use in early childhood, deep discussions are underway about the appropriate role coding has in young children’s classrooms—and in the library.

Sometimes referred to as the “new literacy” in schools, teaching coding means teaching children the language used to operate tablets, computers, and other devices they interact with every day. Experts say these beginning programming skills teach problem-solving and critical thinking and expose children to the world of computer science.

Coding brings young children rich opportunities for language development and the “notion of learning from mistakes,” says Chip Donohue, the dean of distance learning and continuing education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school in child development. “We actually don’t do enough of that with young kids.” The sequencing and patterns involved in programming reinforce skills that have always been taught in the early years, but now also create “habits of mind that are essential for the 21st century,” adds Donohue, also senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center, which provides resources and information on media use with young children. When children code together, they are also learning from each other.

“In the process of learning to code, people learn many other things. They are not just learning to code, they are coding to learn,” Mitchel Resnick, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, wrote in an EdSurge article. “In addition to learning mathematical and computational ideas (such as variables and conditionals), they are also learning strategies for solving problems, designing projects, and communicating ideas.” Resnick adds that these skills are useful to everyone “regardless of age, background, interests, or occupation.”

Cook preschool teacher Lisa Dickinson engages three-year-olds in a directional programming activity

Cook preschool teacher Lisa Dickinson engages three-year-olds in a directional programming activity

When teaching, be active; be social

What’s the best way to teach little ones? Experts suggest that educators avoid the old computer lab model in which students spend a set amount of time each day or week practicing basic coding skills. Preschoolers “don’t need to know how it works,” says Donohue. “Teachers who are doing this well are turning this into a very active, very social opportunity for kids to use language and learn the words they will need.”

For instance, robots such as Dash and Dot from Wonder Workshop, Bee-Bot, and the new CodeaPillar from Fisher-Price teach children some of the same principles of computer science but involve the active, floor-space learning that is more suited to early-childhood classrooms.

“They need to be moving,” says Brian Puerling, director of education technology at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, where preschoolers head to the hallway to program the Bee-Bot, a programmable floor robot resembling a happy yellow bee, to reach a certain destination. They use writing, drawing, and math skills to create a map showing where they want the robot to go.

These hands-on robots help young kids develop a “sense of agency” that can later be translated to programming on a computer or tablet, Puerling says. Younger Catherine Cook School students use Cubelets—magnetized, interlocking blocks with different functions—to create robots. Another example is Cubetto from Primo, a wooden robot box that’s programmed by arranging shapes on a board that looks like a puzzle. “Children need very concrete access points to new content,” Puerling notes.

Shannon McClintock Miller became a coding student herself, learning from introductory programs for young kids, before she started teaching code to kindergarteners at the Van Meter (IA) Elementary School. The former teacher librarian and Library Journal Mover & Shaker, now a consultant, learned how to manipulate fuzzy-ball characters using Kodable, an app with an elementary grades coding curriculum. Then she played with ScratchJr, the interactive tool young children can use to create stories and games, developed at the MIT Media Lab.

There has been rapid growth in coding resources designed for young students. Code.org founders Hadi Partovi and Ali Partovi may be leading efforts to raise awareness of computer science education through Hour of Code, but an increasing number of digital technology companies are creating platforms that even preschoolers can use to give onscreen characters simple directions.

Some librarians are also integrating coding into their teaching without the use of technology. Jenny Lussier, a library media specialist at two schools in Regional School District 13, south of Hartford, CT, used painter’s tape to mark a grid on the floor so her pre-kindergarten students could “program” each other as if they were counting pixels or giving instructions to a robot.

“It’s about how you tell this thing to get from point A to point B,” Lussier says. “I really want them to be able to use their body and feel that kind of stuff. They had such a blast.”

Puerling adds that as with any new technology, many educators might initially take a stand-alone approach to coding before they discover ways to integrate it into their broader teaching. Miller also stresses that bringing computer science into preschool and the primary grades is not just about coding programs and cute robots. It’s also about inspiring young children to consider the types of careers that involve coding.

The growing role of coding in today’s classrooms is reflected in the International Society for Technology in Education’s new standards, which will be released later this year. The standards call for all students to be “computational thinkers” and “innovative designers.” Also notable, under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Computer Science for All” plan, students in city schools will be exposed to skills such as coding, robotics, and web design by 2025. At the elementary level, computer science will be integrated into core classes or subjects such as art, music, and technology. In Florida, the state senate recently approved a bill allowing coding to satisfy foreign language requirements in schools. In the kid lit market, books such as Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding (Feiwel & Friends, 2015) describe programming concepts in child-friendly terms, and board books that strive to explain coding are also available.

Back in schools, it helps to have champions sharing their love of coding with colleagues. Lussier says, “I like to teach teachers almost as much as I like teaching children.”

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.
Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.


  1. Nice point of view helping teachers to explain their goals in using digital tools…
    Can I translate it in french ? Thanks
    Twitter #robotevian

  2. George M. McKelvy, Ph.D. says:

    Very nice article. While very worthwhile, I find it out of financial reach of a great many schools. $960 for 4 Dash & Dots and $600 for 6 BeeBots is very pricey for elementary schools who can’t find the funds for copy machines much less coding. I live in rural Georgia and I am sure many other states are in the same fix.

    • I was able to get my Dash & Dot Robot set that I use with my first graders from a Donors Choose project I created. Through Donors Choose I was also funded Makey Makey sets. Donors Choose has been a great success in my school for many teachers and I highly recommend it especially when funds are low.

  3. I found this on amazon for a much more reasonable price than BeeBots, and they look like they do about the same thing: http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Resources-Robot-Coding-Activity/dp/B01A5YMCH4/ref=pd_rhf_se_s_cp_1?ie=UTF8&dpID=415Jr9rlELL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_SL500_SR135%2C135_&refRID=0NT9WNKM71A6XKY06MH4
    Each additional robot is less than $25.

  4. And if you want some really affordable coding opportunities for slightly older kids check out the Raspberry Pi Zero here: https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/raspberry-pi-zero/

  5. Julie Quesnell says:

    I’m using Robot Turtles Boardgame with lower grades. (http://www.robotturtles.com/) Even upper grades can be a part of it. What I discovered this year with kindergarten is that after I introduced Robot Turtles then moved onto the free Code Studio curriculum (https://code.org/educate), I could skip lesson because they already”got it” months earlier!

  6. Sung-Shine says:

    This is a nice article, could I translate it to Chinese?
    I want to introduce the importance of learning code to Taiwanese people. Thanks!

  7. My son 9 he has dyslexia and high function autistic I hopeing this will help him learn better he loves his pc