Computer programming can be an intimidating topic for anyone to learn — but a LaSalle, Ont., kindergarten teacher is giving her students a head start with an early introduction to coding.
Following changes to Ontario’s math and science curriculum in recent years, the topic of coding is introduced to students through mandatory lessons in Grade 1.
However, LaSalle Public School teacher Deanna Pecaski McLennan is taking it a step further by introducing the topic to her kindergartners.
To appeal to the younger grade level, she’s not teaching coding with a computer. Instead, she’s using old-fashioned markers, chart paper and references to children’s storybooks.
Take Thursday’s lesson, for example. A grid drawn on chart paper — or what Pecaski McLennan refers to as a “coding board” — is placed on the ground.
Students take cards with directional arrows on them, as a reference to coding instructions, and create a path for animals to return to the zoo where they escaped. If a student places an incorrect arrow on the board, the student must “debug” the issue.
The animals on the board are a reference to characters mentioned in the Peggy Rathmann book titled “Good Night, Gorilla” which she had just read to her students a few minutes prior to the coding lesson.
“It’s a little bit of literacy and a little bit of math mixed together in a game-like way so that the children can retell and then innovate the text using coding language,” said Pecaski McLennan.
In a separate coding exercise, a seemingly-random order of letters is placed in a grid. Students must follow a set of coding instructions to identify key letters in the grid. Together, the letters make up the spelling of a student’s name.
The model of teaching coding without computers is done with purpose.
“A lot of families worry about too much screen time for their kids. A lot of computer activities and screen time can be passive learning,” she said.
“By engaging children with coding using tangible materials that they can physically move, you’re helping them understand the fundamentals of coding language such as spatial reasoning and problem-solving.”
Thanks to her coding lessons, Pecaski McLennan said other teachers she’s spoken with have been inspired to incorporate similar lessons in their day-to-day teaching.
But for Pecaski McLennan, she hopes to inspire the next generation to think of themselves as coders in everyday situations, using math and literacy to take any problem that comes their way in life and “debug” it.
“I want them to know that they are capable of rich and authentic math so they can math in the world around them,” she added.
“Math is composed of many different things: understanding numbers, directions, telling stories through math, solving authentic problems through math … Coding is a huge part of that.”
The provincial government mandated coding lessons in Ontario’s first-grade math curriculum in 2020. Coding was added to Ontario’s science cirriculum at the start of the 2022-23 academic year.