Computational thinking is one of the most important skill sets educators can foster in young learners. It’s a cornerstone of early childhood development, giving kids an approach to problem-solving that develops a solution by following a series of steps: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design.
This method of thinking translates well into real-life scenarios and equips kids with the skills and confidence needed to face and solve problems in both the classroom and the real world.
The Importance of Developing Computational Thinking Skills
Fostering computational thinking skills from an early age can be an enormous advantage for students. There are many ways educators can start incorporating these lessons in the classroom.
Hannah Pals, Sphero Hero and Middle School Math, Science, and Robotics Club Instructor at Shirland School in Illinois, shares with us why this process is crucial.
Pals explains, “It’s important to expand and build upon children's innate computational thinking skills in the classroom because it is a natural process. Kids learn patterns, hypothesize, and more while playing with blocks and games and interacting with the world around them. To expand on this natural process—to give it some structure—makes for powerful and authentic learning that can easily be built upon later for more complex tasks.”
Jennifer Jensen, Sphero Hero and Innovation Lab Specialist at Clear Sky Elementary in Colorado, agrees, saying, “Young students, especially those in primary school, thrive on the concept of play. Part of their play is based on those concepts found within computational thinking. By nature, children break things down, look for patterns, focus on the important things, and look to simplify their lives. As educators, we need to capitalize on those innate skills.”
Jensen emphasizes the importance of computational thinking for all, telling us, “Computational thinking isn’t a set of skills that just a few of our students might use someday. These skills are at the heart of learning, helping students develop creativity, collaboration, communication, persistence, and problem solving.”
How Computational Thinking Applies Across Subjects
It’s easy to assume computational thinking is a skill set that’s confined to computer science and other STEM-related subjects. However, this isn’t the case, and it’s actually useful across a broad range of subject matter.
Pals tells us, “Computational thinking is applied to all subjects. For example, in grade school students are taught number and fact families. This then becomes the building block for factoring polynomials in algebra. Students have to decompose numbers, recognize patterns, and essentially follow an algorithm in order to complete the problem.”
It’s important to connect computational thinking to the topics educators are already teaching, integrating it into the existing lesson plans rather than being an additional activity that teachers have to arrange.
Jensen shares this example: “For instance, as students are beginning to add more complex words to their vocabularies or focus on word work, we see them breaking apart, or decomposing, words to either help them pronounce the word or to better understand the word’s meaning (i.e., Greek and Latin root words).”
The foundational skills of computational thinking are just as useful outside of the realm of computer science, as the steps of problem decomposition and developing a process to reach a solution apply to all cases of problem solving.
5 Activities That Develop Computational Thinking Skills
There are many ways for educators to incorporate lessons into their schedules that help develop computational thinking skills through play. Pals says, “In middle school, I still use the power of play as much as I can. Though it is heavily structured, students still enjoy and rapidly grow in computational thinking through these activities.”
Here are some of our Sphero Heroes’ favorite ways to easily incorporate computational thinking into lessons — at home or in the classroom.
1. Number Sense Games
Math can help develop computational thinking skills by using number sense games to teach the concept of pattern recognition. For younger students, this could look like sorting numbers in numerical order, while older students may group together numbers that share characteristics.
Pals explains why this is so beneficial, saying, “I play a lot of number sense games where students need to recognize factors, patterns, and relationships between numbers. I do this because students then will apply those lessons to build up to solving equations and more.”
2. Playtime with Robots
Programmable robots are one of the most fun and effective ways to develop computational thinking skills. Pals shares her experience, saying, “When introducing coding and robotics to my students, I let them play. What can they figure out? What do they notice? Then, when students are exhausted from playing, I give them challenges to complete. They decompose what patterns they have learned from playing and apply them to solve the problem with an algorithm.”
Early learners, as young as four years old, can use the new beginner-friendly Sphero indi robot to develop computational thinking skills without the need for an app or screen. indi can be used to solve puzzles, design mazes, and many more activities that hone computational thinking skills.
Before learners can understand a programming language or know how to assemble computer hardware, they need to learn how to think creatively to solve complex logical problems.
Included with the Sphero indi Class Pack is an in-depth Educator Guide that covers four content areas of focus designed to reinforce computational thinking. Chapters in the guide include directions, patterns and sequences, measuring, and a mixed bag of storytelling and other activities. Together, these guided lessons take early learners on a journey of exploration and learning new, valuable skills.
3. Writing by Word Count
Writing by word count is a great way to teach abstraction, or the need to focus on solely the pertinent information. For this activity, students are given a writing assignment with a maximum word count that they must stay under.
Jensen explains, “This could be done as a beginning-of-the-year activity where students have the chance to interview one another, or it could be used to summarize new content from a topic in science or social studies.”
Having to adhere to a restrictive word count forces students to evaluate which information is worth including and what can be left out, putting into practice the concept of abstraction.
4. Rube Goldberg Machine
“This is an old one, but a good one,” Pals begins. “Have your students create a Rube Goldberg Machine.”
A Rube Goldberg Machine is a classic representation of computational thinking, using a chain reaction to show each step of the machine’s process toward a desired outcome.
Pals discusses the effectiveness of this method for teaching computational thinking, stating, “The idea is to decompose a simple problem (i.e., turning on a light), then use patterns and abstraction to create a final algorithm or, in this case, a machine.”
Try this Leprechaun trap activity with your Sphero robot to inspire your students’ first Rube Goldberg machine.
5. Punctuation Flowchart
Flowcharts are especially useful when it comes to helping students understand the concept of automation and algorithms, and they can be applied to a wide range of subjects. For English, students can create a flowchart to help determine what punctuation is needed for a given sentence.
Jensen tells us, “This is a good strategy for English Language Learners or special education students who might be struggling with how to punctuate a sentence in their writing. Creating a flowchart could help them decide whether a sentence needs a period or a question mark.”
Teach Computational Thinking Skills with Sphero
Computational thinking is a crucial set of skills for young learners that can be easily incorporated into classrooms or at home in a variety of ways, spanning all different subjects.
It’s important to remember that educators don’t have to be computer science experts to foster students’ computational thinking skills, and it can be built into existing lessons without the need to create brand new material.
Jensen expands on this and encourages collaboration, explaining, “Teachers need to be provided with authentic experiences to help change the mindset of not being equipped or experienced enough to teach computational thinking. They can utilize one another and collaborate as a team or as a school to identify where they are already teaching these life-long skills in their daily lessons.”
Educators can also promote computational thinking skills in students with the help of Sphero’s programmable robots and STEM kits and STEAM activities designed to introduce the concepts of decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design through play.