In her classroom in LaSalle, Ont., on a recent December morning, Deanna Pecaski McLennan’s kindergarten students are sprawled on the carpet to learn a new language they typically wouldn’t tackle until later in their schooling: computer coding.
For this particular lesson, students use arrow cards to move a wooden gingerbread man to the “STOP” sign along a large sheet of grid paper. Along the way, they must outmanoeuvre the fox and other villainous characters from the fairy tale. To cross a river, the students have to create a “jump” code using a blank card to draw arrows pointing up.
It might look like a game, but what these little ones are also learning are the fundamentals of how to code. If they accidentally point an arrow in the wrong direction, Ms. Pecaski McLennan guides them in debugging the code to help the character move smoothly across the grid.
“What’s this?” asked five-year-old Ryan when he first arrived at class to find grid paper and arrow cards on his desk.
“Oh, it’s coding. I knew it!” he exclaimed before getting to work drawing a gingerbread man and then opening a glue stick to hold the arrows in place. Each of the kids coded individually at their desks before moving to the group task on the carpet.
To meet future job market demands, Ontario made changes this fall to its elementary science curriculum to include mandatory lessons on coding starting in Grade 1. (Coding is already included in the math curriculum.) Nova Scotia and British Columbia also made computer programming compulsory at the elementary and high-school level.
Typically, coding is taught on computers with students telling the machine which action to perform or how to complete tasks. But Ms. Pecaski McLennan has taken it a step further in her classroom here at LaSalle Public School, located in a bedroom community of Windsor. She is not only introducing coding to the youngest learners but also showcasing how children can be taught these skills without a screen.
“A lot of people think kindergarten is just about play. It’s more than that. These kids are so capable of such rich, authentic layered learning,” she said.
Ms. Pecaski McLennan has been teaching kindergarten for more than two decades. Long before coding became a buzz word, she grew interested in it when her daughter was eager to try ScratchJr., an app that teaches programming to kids, about eight years ago.
For her, coding is not only telling a machine what tasks to perform, but also equipping students with problem solving skills, spatial awareness and teaching them how to sequence.
“A lot of people think you have to have computer savviness. It’s just directional language,” she said, adding that other teachers have heard about her work and have expressed an interest.
In the fall, she typically starts with getting students to move left, right or stomp their feet to a song that gives them instructions on when to move which way. Then, she moves to grid paper where the children listen to a fairy tale and use arrow cards to move characters like the Gingerbread Man or the Three Little Pigs. Eventually, she’ll pull out a couple of robots so students can program their movements.
Part of Ms. Pecaski McLellan’s motivation for teaching coding early stems from feeling inadequate at math when she was young. She believes that “empowering” children early on in spatial awareness and logic is important for later success – in the subject at school, and beyond.
“We have to prepare them for jobs in an unknown future,” she said. “And we want a lot of them to love math, to love science.”
Helping girls see STEM careers in a different light
Hugo Lapierre, a lecturer in educational technologies at Université du Québec à Montréal, said that exposing students early to basic computer science learning will help them down the road.
“If the goal is to have a future cohort of citizens who are highly computer literate, then it seems reasonable to believe that the earlier we introduce these elements into the school curriculum, the more students will be exposed to them and, eventually, the more computer literate they will be,” he said.
For their part, the kids get a kick out of the lessons.
“I love coding because we get to do fun things,” five-year-old Isabella said enthusiastically after she’d directed her gingerbread man to the finish.
Sarah Sabihuddin’s five-year-old daughter, Safira, won’t necessarily share a lot about what she did in gym or art class. But she is eager to tell her parents about lessons in coding.
Safira enjoys math, and Ms. Sabihuddin is grateful to Ms. Pecaski McLennan for fostering that curiosity.
“I think having this kind of exposure to math and coding in general will make her think positively about math,” Ms. Sabihuddin said.
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