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Legos, ice cream, gardening, and computational thinking

young girl with dark braids sits at table with five servings of ice cream in front of her inside colorful cannisters

Legos, ice cream, gardening, and computational thinking

March 21, 2022

You might not think that Lego bricks, ice cream, and gardening are related to teaching young children about computational thinking, but you would be mistaken.

These examples of playful experiences are designed by researchers at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE), a center at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG). The work is spearheaded by Chih-Ing Lim, PhD, co-director of STEMIE, Megan Vinh, PhD, principal investigator at STEMIE, Jessica Amsbary, PhD, TA specialist at STEMIE, in partnership with Doug Clements, PhD & Julie Sarama, PhD, co-PIs on STEMIE and early math experts at Marsico Institute at the University of Denver.

The experiences or investigations are designed to increase awareness about the importance of STEM and computational thinking for the youngest learners and to encourage early childhood providers, practitioners, and families to embed these concepts and learning opportunities into their daily routines and activities. Findings from a recent survey of early childhood practitioners conducted by STEMIE indicate that practitioners do not see computational thinking as important for young children when compared to other STEM domains, such as science and math. This is especially true for infants and toddlers and children with disabilities.

“Many early childhood activities can be slightly modified to really purposefully target some of these foundational computational thinking skills for very young children,” says Lim. “We can teach about and embed computational thinking into our daily routines and activities.”

Strategic language and activities incorporated into a child’s playtime and routines enable children to progress toward a series of goals that help them grow in their STEM learning. This project demonstrates that computational thinking does not need to include interaction with screens and technology as there are many ways to embed these critical computational thinking concepts into activities without screens, especially for young children. FPG researchers are highlighting “low-tech” ways that children can develop foundational concepts—such as representation, debugging, conditionals, sequences, repetition, and looping—that lead to later coding skills.

For example, at home and in classrooms, adults can work with children to have Lego bricks stand for something else. For example, they may decide that the red brick means “clap” and the blue brick means “stomp,” and the yellow brick means “spin.” The participants can make a game out of doing the actions each brick represents, with the ability to adapt and modify the actions and activity to ensure that children of all abilities can participate. Adults can teach children how Lego bricks are symbols representing something else and putting them together in a particular order, can be referred to as creating “codes.”

Similarly, making an ice cream cone requires particular steps, such as first choosing the cone and then scooping the ice cream. Amsbary points out that when adults help children determine the steps involved in putting together ice cream, the children are learning to create an algorithm. And if children work with adults to try a new ice cream recipe and find that the texture of the dessert is too icy, they can learn that finding and fixing what went wrong is a concept called debugging. If plants aren’t watered, they won’t grow. This is an example of a conditional.  Algorithms can also be learned in the garden by determining and following the steps of planting seeds and other gardening tasks.

The STEMIE team is developing learning trajectories for science, technology (i.e., computational thinking), and engineering, and continuing to refine the trajectories for math. Research-based learning trajectories—which include a goal, developmental progressions, and playful but intentional experiences and activities—help educators understand how children think and learn about STEM topics and how to support children to progress in their thinking and learning.

Investigations as well as developmental progressions are now being tested in incubator sites, including early intervention services in homes, and inclusive early childhood education centers. The goal is to have the learning trajectories shared on the STEMIE website this November. Currently, discovery play activities, storybook conversations and everyday routines tip sheets, blog posts, videos, and much more are available on STEMIE’s website and social media channels, providing families and early childhood and early childhood special education practitioners with resources to strengthen STEM learning in young children.

“We expect this project will increase awareness about the importance of STEM and computational thinking for our youngest learners,” says Vinh. “We also expect that more early childhood providers and practitioners will be embedding these types of concepts and learning opportunities into their daily routines and activities.”