Coding and programming in elementary school
a boy and girl working on a laptop

While the national "Hour of Code" kicked off Computer Science Education Week the first week of December, all Colonial School District elementary students recently finished a "Unit of Code" that covered a couple months of classes during their Technology Specialist rotation.

"Coding is very important, because it teaches the basic computer science skills they need moving forward," said Plymouth Elementary Technology Teacher Christine Ehrlich. "It also gives them a strong foundation in computational thinking skills that transfer to many other subjects, such as math."

Learning the language

The students use a programming language called Blockly that helps the children create the code visually by linking different blocks together to make something happen. Most of the coding early on involves trying to get a character on the screen to follow a particular path, but the coding challenges get more complex year-to-year. The blocks include commands like turn left, turn right, move forward, repeat and add sound, and can be nested to create loops and if/then conditions.

In Mrs. Ehrlich's class, one student had created a scene with flashing lights that changed colors, a rotating disco ball and a half dozen cats bouncing around the screen.

"I made a flying cat party," said Ayden, a third grade student at Plymouth Elementary. "The trickiest part to coding with the blocks is making things move so they don't go off the screen."

Much of the programming tasks appear to be part of a computer game, where the students move through levels as they build their skills.

"I like coding because you get to move the blocks and then connect them, and if you get it right, you get to go to the next level," said Plymouth Elementary third grader Alexa. "It's fun because when you go on to new levels, it gets harder and you get to focus more."

Girl at laptop with code on screen

Hour of Code

Elementary specialist time is under an hour, plus there are other things in the curriculum to cover, so the official "Hour of Code" can take several class periods to complete. Mrs. Ehrlich allows for 10-15 minutes of time at the end of class for students to visit the Hour of Code website. The draw of Hour of Code is that it incorporates popular characters from Angry Birds, Minecraft and Frozen. Another advantage of Hour of Code is that is accessible to anyone, so parents or siblings interested in trying coding can click here to explore the Hour of Code website to explore different games and challenges.

"It keeps them engaged and excited all through the coding unit," added Mrs. Ehrlich. "Plus, it's fun for the kids to share these skills with their families and for the adults to see what they're working on. These children are all digital natives. The Internet is a resource that's always been there for them. For older generations, they're digital visitors. We're still getting used to technology and adapting and learning. Bridging the gap between the generations is important."

What's next in Technology class

With the next unit being Robotics, children as young as kindergarten will continue to code as they transfer the skills they've developed to program items on a screen to program educational robots like the Dot and Dash, the Ozobot and the Bee-bot.