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Unplugged Computer Science Activities

Unplugged Computer Science Activities
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It’s a trend that’s becoming more popular by the day. If you’re a parent or teacher who hasn’t hopped on the bandwagon by now, you’ve probably at least felt pressure to do so. Yup, I’m talking about coding, one of the most rapidly growing academic subjects.

But it’s not just computer science pros like Mark Zuckerberg who are advocating for the cause. Many musicians, models and athletes have joined the conversation.

Even more surprising, some of the most popular STEM related toys are aimed at preschool children, as are some of the most popular online coding activities.

Wait a second. Little kids, even preschoolers, are supposed to be coding? Shouldn’t your little ones be singing, reading, playing in the dirt, and making friends? Not to mention, as homeschooling parents who are responsible for the entirety of your children’s education, adding yet another subject to an already packed curriculum might seem more than a little daunting.

And if you’ve never studied computer science yourself, how are you supposed to teach it to your children?

But there’s good news. You don’t need a computer science background to be able to expose your children to computer science concepts. Coding involves a lot of huge, fancy terms, but here’s a little secret. Most of those terms are simply alternative ways of explaining tasks we do every day.

Here are my top six coding vocabulary words and concepts, along with age-appropriate activities you can easily slip into your daily routine without being anywhere near a screen.

The best part? These activities involve singing, reading, playing in the dirt, and making friends.

Six Vital Computer Science Concepts:

Algorithm

The word “algorithm” has nine letters and four syllables. Quite the big and fancy word, right?

So maybe it’s best to leave algorithms to the professionals.

Not necessarily.

An algorithm is simply a list of steps required to complete a task job. If you’ve followed a recipe, used a map, or learned a dance, you understand what an algorithm is.

And so does any child who has sung along (and done the hand motions) to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

There are tons of algorithms you can talk about during the day as they come up.

What’s the algorithm for:

  • Brushing your teeth?
  • Tying your shoes.
  • Getting ready for class.
  • Walking the dog.
  • Your morning routine.

You’re probably thinking of more already.

You can also go the project route:

Event

An algorithm on its own is just a list. Without something to trigger them, they never begin.

Here are a few examples of real-life events:

  • The alarm clock goes off, and you get ready for your day.
  • You tell the dog to sit, and the dog sits.
  • The music begins, you do a dance.
  • You press play on a YouTube video, and it starts.

Events are more fun with a remote control.

Try making one!

Loop

It would take a lot of energy and effort, and cause a lot of frustration, if I told you five separate times to clap your hands.

Wouldn’t it be easier if I just said, “clap your hands five times?”

That’s why loops are so handy.

A loop is a part of an algorithm that happens more than once.

In the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” we sing “Knees and Toes” twice. That’s a loop.

Same with a recipe that tells you to stir the pot five times.

Try out this dance. It’s full of loops!

Conditional

  • If it’s raining outside, then you’ll take an umbrella with you leave the house.
  • If you’re thirsty, then you’ll drink water.
  • If the doorbell rings, then you’ll answer the door.

And there you have some classic examples of if / then statements. You and your child probably come up with several if / then statements every day.

Try coming up with a list.

You might even expand them into if / then / else statements.

  • If the cake is done, then I’ll take it out of the oven. Else, I’ll leave it in for another three minutes.

Here’s a fun literacy / art activity:

Read “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff with your child, and come up with your own if / then statements and make your own book.

Function

Just like we talked about with loops, coders love to save time, which they often accomplish by cutting and pasting.

Imagine writing out the words to a song, and every so often you found yourself having to write the same set of words over and over again.

We’ve found a solution to that problem. We just write the word “chorus.” That’s exactly how a function works. You write a group of steps once, give them a name, and from then on, the name is all you have to write.

Can you figure out the function in “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes?” (Don’t confuse “function” with loop.” Loops happen in order, and functions can happen anywhere.)

This arts and crafts activity will really help clarify the concept.

Debugging

Debugging is a fancy but quick way of saying “find and identify the mistakes in your work and fix them.” (Learn more about the interesting origin of the term.)

You can use the debugging process for almost every activity you work on with your child, from shoe tying to cooking to complex math problems, spelling or writing.

To begin the debugging process:

  • Identify what’s working. (Figure out where the bugs aren’t hiding.)
  • Find what’s not working. (Figure out where the bugs are hiding.)
  • Give each bug a name.

The best way to solve a problem is to talk it out, which is why many professional programmers keep rubber ducks on their desks.

Yes, “rubber duck debugging” is very real.

Once you spot and name a bug:

  • Explain the problem to the duck.
  • Fix the problem.
  • Thank the duck. (Optional: Tell your duckie you love her!)

Of course, any duck will do, but it’s more fun if you make and name your own.

This is Grace:

Now you’re on your way!

The most important thing to remember when it comes to coding is that computers don’t have brains. In order to function and do so many amazing things, they use our brains.

That’s why understanding computer science concepts is so valuable. Once your child understands these concepts, learning the syntax of any coding language will be a piece of cake.

But why should my child learn to code?

Coding is a great, visual way for children to learn critical thinking, math and logic skills, and is a wonderful outlet for creativity. Wouldn’t you rather have your child program his or her own game than passively play a game created by someone else?

Besides, chances are, no matter what career path your child follows, knowing at least some code will be critical.

If your child starts coding now, landing a good, high-paying job will be much easier.

So why not give your child a head start?

Happy coding!

Additional Resources:


Melissa Despina Fragiadaki began her career as a Kindergarten / first grade teacher. After seeing the positive impact that educational technology had on her students’ literacy skills, she decided study Instructional Technology and Media at Columbia University Teachers College.

Since earning her master’s degree, Melissa has worked as an educational consultant / teacher trainer, robotics and Scratch teacher, First LEGO League (FLL) coach and as the technology teacher at a private school in Brooklyn (grades Kindergarten – eighth).

As a technology teacher, one of Melissa’s biggest goals is to show students that when it comes to technology, they should not be afraid to create rather than consume. She believes strongly that all students can draw on their individual strengths to become successful coders, and is always looking for ways to encourage more girls to get involved in STEM / STEAM.

Melissa can’t decide which part of her career she loves best – watching children develop a passion for reading, or seeing the look on children’s faces when they discover that a line of code they’ve written has the power to make “magic” happen.