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Build that Code! Teaching Coding with 3D Construction

By Ann Gadzikowski, CTD Early Childhood Coordinator

Two young children play with wooden blocks and plastic dinosaur toys. They create a zig zag path of blocks and move the dinosaurs down the path one by one, all in a row. As they play, the children laugh as one chants, “Forward, forward, turn! Forward, forward, jump!” She speaks these words in a steady rhythm as she marches a toy dinosaur across the surface of the blocks, demonstrating each movement with a blue plastic stegosaurus.

Would you be surprised to learn that these children are computer scientists? What might look like a moment of silly play is actually a demonstration of coding concepts such as sequencing and looping. This scenario demonstrates one of the unique and significant strengths of our early childhood coding curriculum at CTD – frequent opportunities to connect the virtual to the tangible. In courses like Story Code Alpha, children ages four, five and six learn to code on tablets and use three dimensional tools like wooden blocks to practice and extend their understanding of the abstract coding concepts.

This past summer, a team of cross-disciplinary researchers from Northwestern University’s School of Communications and School of Education and Social Policy conducted research in our Leapfrog coding classrooms to study the effectiveness of the CTD Story Code curriculum, a model which includes a balance of coding instruction using educational apps like ScratchJr and Daisy the Dinosaur with hands-on 3D construction projects using blocks, LEGOs, cardboard, and other tangible tools. Initial results of the study show that children made significant gains in coding skills and expertise after just one week in a Leapfrog Story Code classroom. For example, in pre assessments on the first day of class only 32% of Story Code Alpha participants were able to complete the first level of coding tasks in the Kodable platform while on the last day of class the post assessments revealed that 92% of participants were able to master the first level. The researchers are currently looking closely at the data for specific measures of how the block play influenced the children’s experience using the coding apps and how the children’s experience with the coding apps influenced their block play.

 

Parents and educators often feel conflicted about the role of technology in the lives of children. On the one hand, we know children are curious and fascinated by digital games and entertainment and many are eager to learn how to code. On the other hand, there’s growing evidence that children are spending more and more time in front of screens and we wonder what impact that will have on learning and socialization. In our CTD early childhood classrooms we seek a healthy balance between these two perspectives.

Read more by Ann Gadzikowski about how to engage children in learning challenging computer science concepts using a healthy variety of tools and instructional practices [link to http://www.ctd.northwestern.edu/search?search_api_views_fulltext=%22by+Ann+Gadzikowski%22].

Ann Gadzikowski will be presenting a session called “Build that Code! Teaching Coding with 3D Construction” at the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in November and at the SXSWedu conference this March.

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