Notes from the Classroom: Coding in Preschool

Nancy Kopf

Dec. 27, 2020

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"Move forward." Xavier is 4-years-old, and he is holding a tiny tile with an arrow on it. We are playing the robot-powered coding game, Matatalab, and I've just asked him what he thinks the tile means. Granted, I had prompted him generously.

Xavier's teacher, Ms. Owens, approaches curiously from across the room. "Did he speak?" she whispers. "Xavier doesn't speak that often."

While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends interacting with children whenever possible while they use technology, provoking expressive language was not my expected outcome when I brought Matatalab into a Pre-K classroom. Much like Hatch's own iStartSmart, which teaches basic kindergarten-readiness skills, Matatalab is a form of game-based learning, in which the rules and rewards of a game lead children along a desired instructional path. Because Hatch was considering putting Matatalab in our catalog, we wanted to see how four-year-olds would accept it. Even with the support of a game, could four-year-olds learn the principles of coding when they were still new to the activity of decoding words? I admit, I was initially a bit skeptical. But in Ms. Owens' classroom, the game was a child magnet as other children wandered to our table from other centers.

Here's how it works. The game includes a little control tower that connects to the game board, a tiny, rolling, dome-shaped robot, and a large set of plastic tiles. Each tile represents an action or "function" that the robot can perform. Tiles are placed on the game board to build in a left-to-right sequence that serves as instructions for the robot.

As children “code” by placing the tiles, they are playing a game and practicing the basic left-to-right literacy pattern. The way the tiles fit onto the board enforces this directionality. It was one of the more challenging points for most of the children, who peppered the tiles all over the plastic grid at various angles. When the player is satisfied with the sequence, they can mash a button to send the little robot into action moving in different directions, turning, playing sounds, or (my favorite), saying "hi" in a little robot voice.

It is this feedback loop that makes the game so compelling. I remember professor James Paul Gee's learning principles for designing game-based learning, and the "amplification of input" principle. In short, games should provide " a lot of output for a little input", and that output should be informative. I noticed that many children could barely contain their excitement and pushed the button after only minor adjustments. Initially, the button-pushing seemed to happen too often, especially if two players were involved at once (one child is still building while another presses repeatedly). With guidance, most children catch on to the correspondence between the tiles they have chosen and the actions.

Once the tile-to-action relationship was clear, we began to make predictions. "What do you think this tile will make the robot do?" I ask, holding up a tile with a musical note on it. Xavier looks puzzled. We put the tile down to find out. The robot bursts into song. Xavier looks pleased. Is he learning to code? It's probably too soon to say, but while working with him and his classmates, I noted a few tips that may be useful for any teacher using Matatalab for the first time:

  • Work with one or two children at a time.
  • Teach the children to place the robot in the middle of the table every time they begin a new sequence so that it does not fall off the edge.
  • Introduce the tower and the robot first before the tiles. Discuss how they "talk" to one another.
  • Scaffold play. On a child's first day with Matatalab, use only the directional movement tiles.
  • Begin with only one tile and demonstrate cause and effect between the tower and the robot, then add two more tiles that deal only with movement direction.
  • Assist children with understanding the left-to-right convention in terms of placement on the board and turning the tiles.
  • Ask children to stop and predict what will happen before they press the button.
  • Ask children to point to the tile the robot is responding to while the robot is completing the sequence.
  • While introducing a new tile, ask the child to look at the picture on the tile and predict what it will make the robot do. Then, test the prediction.
  • If children become too eager to press the button before the sequence has been built, try removing the robot from the table until they are finished placing tiles.

I have returned with Matatalab since this visit, and I am surprised by how the children build on what they remember. Some of them even voluntarily "read" the sequence of tiles to me before pressing the button. Part of the benefit, of course, happens during the rich interactions that surround the game play. I am reminded of how coding is simply another form of language and making the plastic tiles over here "talk" to the robot a foot away is making a connection.

* Names changed to preserve privacy.

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