Computing and Young Children

A Call for Participation

Challenging the existing paradigm with a “teacher as researcher” methodology inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach

Most “technology” in schools compares badly to clay or paint.
Computer programming does not.

Computer programming is a new liberal art. While programming, children develop agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. In an age of rising authoritarianism and accusations of “fake news,” understanding the world from a systems perspective and the sorts of debugging skills developed through programming become essential.

Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world. Computer programming is a way of making mathematics and mathematical meaning. If our goals were no more ambitious than improving performance on the existing math curriculum, we would not only teach kids to program computers, but create scenarios in which programming skills would develop over sustained periods of time. Seymour Papert challenged us fifty years ago to create a world in which children are mathematicians, rather than being taught math. Computing opens up a world of mathematical possibilities previously inaccessible to children while providing a meaningful context for what is otherwise a stale, irrelevant, and unlearnable traditional math curriculum. Programming is also an inherently creative and analytical endeavor.

I seek to make computer programming a standard part of a young child’s creative play and expressive materials. Teachers engaged in this work will develop their pedagogical, analytical, and computational skills.

In addition to the standing on the shoulders of Papert’s work, this project is shaped by the Reggio Emilia approach. For more than half a century, the small Italian city of Reggio Emilia has been recognized for having the best schools in the world. This consistency of this accomplishment is especially salient since these schools serve infants and toddlers.

The profound wisdom, subtlety, complexity, and stunning beauty demonstrated and documented by generations of children and teachers of Reggio Emilia are worthy of a lifetime’s study, yet also fundamentally simple. Each child is endowed with full citizenship rights and is viewed as curious, creative, competent, and capable. It is the responsibility of the teachers in the child’s life – parents, teachers, and the environment – to be receptive to the needs, interests, questions, and gifts of each bambino.

Although applicable to the teaching of any discipline to any age of student, the Reggio Emilia approach is specific to the creative, social, intellectual, and emotional development of young children. Their work with children from six months to six years old has consistently demonstrated the remarkable potential of each learner, when the locus control is the child learning, exploring, playing, creating, investigating, alone or with others in an environment prepared deliberately for full participation in their world.

One hallmark of the “Reggio Emilia approach” is the emphasis on “teacher as researcher.” Teachers engage in a continuous cycle of forming and investigating hypotheses about student learning. Through this careful observation and process of documentation, private thinking becomes public and visible thinking becomes visible. Insights gained through this research process are then used to prepare the learning environment for further intellectual development.

Problem statement

Technological fluency evolves in ways not unlike literacy, yet computing experiences in school continue to be treated as a novelty, are overly theoretical, or withheld until late in one’s schooling experience. Much more needs to be done to start developing technological fluency, via computer programming, from an earlier age.

Research hypothesis

Almost all attempts to introduce “coding” to young children makes one or more of the following mistakes.

  1. Software environments are crippled, clumsy, or dumbed-down simulacra of more robust platforms for creative computing. This compares poorly to other expressive media while depriving children of rich computational experiences.
  2. Hardware and software are so limited that they have minimal extended play value. Kids use them a few times before losing interest. Coding and robotics toys for young children just are not much fun.
  3. Software and coding toys impose a narrow range of acceptable behaviors, eliminating potential bugs or serendipitous discoveries.
  4. Attempts to simplify the user interface make concrete operations more abstract, not the opposite as intended.

I propose sustained collaborative action research in which one of the following three paths are followed in order to better understand what young children are capable of creating via computer programming.

  1. Using open-ended environments, such as Scratch, young children design sets and costumes for animations, games, and simulations while directing their teachers how to program their creations and bring them to life. Such collegial collaboration is similar to the time-honored tradition of young children dictating stories to an adult who commits their ideas to paper. In this case, there is more than storytelling involved. Students are designing for interactivity while exploring physics, geometry, algebraic thinking, sequencing, feedback, probabilistic behavior, logic, debugging, and much more simultaneously.
  2. Teachers create ancillary materials or modify software environments to inspire and support independent use of open-ended programming environments.
  3. A combination of strategies One and Two

Benefits for educational institutions participating in this project

  • Teachers develop expertise as researchers more capable of understanding the thinking of children. 
  • Teachers improve their own programming skills and computational fluency.
  • Traditional tools and electronic media will be employed to develop a range of documentation strategies.
  • Participating educators are likely to see student gains in mathematical thinking and problem solving. (external evaluation may be required)
  • Participating educators may gain opportunities for publishing, speaking, workshop leading and other forms of dissemination.
  • Educators will enjoy collaborative opportunities with others participating in the project.
My school is interested in this project...

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. – December 2019