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The words “robots,” “programming,” and “coding” probably make you think of complex topics in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). For Marina Umanschi Bers, a computer science professor at Tufts who studies innovative technologies for children, coding isn’t a STEM skill; it’s about playgrounds and literacy.
Coding is a Playground
“Coding is like a playground because it’s the ability to create anything you want,” Dr. Bers said, adding that “playgrounds” support open-ended creative play, as well as social interactions, language development, and problem solving.
She contrasts “playgrounds” and “playpens,” which are more limited, giving children just one way to play and just one “right answer.”
Open-ended, creative play with “playground” technologies — like ScratchJr, a free program for kids that Dr. Bers co-created with colleagues at MIT — fuels healthy early development and turns kids into creative problem solvers.
“I think part of the reason we’re seeing so much innovation in our world is because this is the generation that was exposed to computer programming and computer science, and they became innovators,” Dr. Bers said. “They didn’t just innovate in the computer science field, they started to innovate in society.”
Coding is Literacy
In her book, Coding as a Playground, Dr. Bers writes about how she speaks four languages and uses them to communicate in different ways and with different people. She says coding is another language and another form of literacy, allowing people to express their ideas and tell their stories. Coding can be applied to any discipline — from math and science to music and art.
“When little children are learning how to read and write, they are learning to express themselves,” Dr. Bers said. “It really empowers individuals because reading and writing is associated with thinking. The same is true for coding. Learning how to code engages children in problem solving, but also in using the power of computation to create new kinds of things and new kinds of projects and think in abstract, logical ways.”
Dr. Bers says that when families bring storytelling into coding, it becomes more fun and engaging for all kids, and especially for girls.
“Somehow coding has been co-opted by problem solving,” she said. She recommends that parents instead ask their kids questions that help them think about coding as storytelling, such as “What question do you have?” or “What stories do you want to tell?”
8 Ways Parents Can Turn Coding and Robots into Playgrounds and Literacy for Kids
Dr. Bers shared 8 on-screen and off-screen ways parents can transform coding and robotics into playgrounds and literacy for their children.
1) Play with “cause and effect.”
Bang on different pots and pans to discover what sounds they make. Experiment to find out what happens when you blow bubbles with different sized bubble wands. Slide stuffed animals down different playground equipment and predict which one will be the fastest.
2) Play with sequence.
Play “turn taking” games: these can be simple games like taking turns making different animal sounds or more complicated games like Candy Land or Go Fish. Try organizing things (like stuffed animals or shoes) from smallest to biggest or biggest to smallest. When you read stories, talk about what happened first, next, and last.
3) Play with patterns.
Spot rhythm patterns in your favorite songs or visual patterns in your environment. Play pattern quiz games to help your little one understand patterns. For example, you could say, “I see a pattern. There’s a red button and then a blue button and then a red button and then a blue button. What comes next?”
4) Give your kids access to developmentally appropriate programming tools like ScratchJr or KIBO (a screens-free robot kit for kids that Dr. Bers also developed).
Many kids are ready to play with these tools starting at age 4 or 5. They are creative and open-ended coding “playgrounds” that let kids make their own creations. Dr. Bers says she’s seen students use these tools to make dancing robots, robots that can clean up, and robots that try to scare away animals eating gardens at night. She said her team is currently working with a classroom that is using KIBO to recreate the “wild rumpus” in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
“It’s a process — from coming up with an idea to designing a project,” Dr. Bers said. “In technological playgrounds, children have ideas…They can carry out those ideas.”
5) Remember that there are “playground” robots and “playpen” robots. Nudge your child toward the ones that are “playgrounds.”
“Robots can become a playpen: you just watch someone else make a robot and then you watch it do its thing. That’s actually pretty boring, right?” Dr. Bers said. “A robot can become a playground if you are provided with a programming language or a way to communicate to the robot what to do.”
Dr. Bers said robots are best when the child is actively involved, using coding/robotics to express his or her own ideas by controlling the robot’s behaviors.
6) Remember that not all robots look like steampunk spaceships!
Dr. Bers encourages kids to build robots out of different materials — including soft, mushy, and fluffy ones — and decorate them in creative ways. This makes robots more fun, engaging, and creative for all kids. Robots’ design can be part of children’s process of expression.
7) Spot the robots!
Robots are everywhere. They help astronauts explore space, they help doctors perform surgeries, and they help people drive cars, wash hands, and play their favorite songs. Throughout your day, Dr. Bers suggests, see if your child can spot the robots and talk about what they do.
“If you go to wash your hands in a restaurant, usually you put your hands down and water comes out of the faucet. There’s a sensor. That is a form of a robot because there was a sensor that detected your hands and motion,” she said. “There is no magic in that faucet. Someone designed it and it serves a purpose.”
Dr. Bers said parents don’t have to know all the details of how the faucet (or the Roomba) works: “What’s important is there is someone who programmed it — it’s not magic. There is cause and effect. And someone thought about its design.”
8) Make sure kids are in control!
Allow your child to take the lead when they’re playing with coding and robots: it might take longer, but your little one will learn more by doing.
“I see parents kind of take over,” Dr. Bers said. “The parent is controlling the interface and asking the kid what the kid wants to do, but the parent does it. That’s more efficient and it goes faster, but it’s not the real way to do it. The real way to do it is to let the child do it. And go slow. Go with the child. They will be slow.”