Developing Preschoolers' Computational Thinking Skills Through Digital Gameplay

Developing Preschoolers' Computational Thinking Skills Through Digital Gameplay

Heather Lavigne, Jillian Orr, Marisa Wolsky, Borgna Brunner, Amanda Wright
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6888-0.ch016
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This chapter provides an overview of how digital media can be leveraged to support the exploration of developmentally appropriate computational thinking (CT) skills for preschoolers. These skills, named CT Core Ideas in the project team's framework, support children's abilities to tackle problems or goals using systematic, computational strategies. The authors describe a theoretical model that outlines the ways in which CT aligns with preschool math instruction, and how children can apply their CT skills through digital gameplay. This chapter also shares lessons learned from classroom research with teachers and children and describes several game prototypes that children played to practice their CT skills. At the end of the chapter, they provide recommendations for how educators can support young children's CT by integrating hands-on gameplay into classroom instruction.
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Computational thinking (CT) has been referred to as a method for problem solving that is analogous to the ways in which computers execute programs. The idea of CT stems as far back as the 1950s (see Tedre & Denning, 2016 for a review). In the 21st century, CT is a skill that is as fundamental as reading, writing, and math (Wing, 2006). Defined by this project team as a creative way of thinking that empowers children to be systematic problem solvers, enabling them to identify problems and then brainstorm and generate step-by-step solutions that can be communicated and followed by computers or humans, CT “is the core of all modern Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines and is intrinsic to all other disciplines from A to Z” (Henderson et al., 2007, p. 195). It is vital for all STEM practices, including those identified in the K-12 Computer Science Framework, the Common Core, and NGSS standards (K-12 Computer Science Framework, 2016; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; NGSS Lead States, 2013). And, with the exponential growth of technology, it promotes many of the crucial skills necessary for the academic success and future career opportunities of today’s children.

In the last several years, there has been a call to integrate CT across the curriculum, with the International Society of Technology in Education creating a set of Computational Thinking Competencies (ISTE, 2018) for educators to support the versatile use of CT while solving everyday problems. Designed to help educators foster CT with students of all ages, the competencies encompass the abilities needed to be a learner, leader, collaborator, designer, and facilitator. As CT learners, educators are expected to develop an understanding of CT and its core components and identify how CT can be integrated across the curriculum. As equity leaders, educators should be able to support all students to be computational thinkers by creating a classroom culture of inclusion that builds student confidence in computing. As classroom teachers, educators should encourage collaboration during student learning, support personal expression through design, and facilitate the use of CT practices.

Introducing CT into preschool learning has the potential to increase children’s development across multiple domains of school readiness. Standards and recommended approaches to preschool mathematics instruction suggest that during the prekindergarten years, programs should encourage children to explore skill mastery around CT concepts like patterns, problem solving, and the development of CT mindsets like curiosity, flexibility, inventiveness, and task persistence (National Association for the Education of Young Children & National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2002). But despite the recognition that childhood is a period that is critical for developing CT skills (Bers, 2008; Gelman & Brenneman, 2004), there are few learning opportunities that foster CT in preschool classrooms, nor is there widely accessible training and support needed for educators to see opportunities for integrating CT into early learning.

The thoughtful use of technology can support the development of CT in young children by serving as a digital playground, promoting opportunities for problem solving, imagination, motor skill development, and social interactions (Bers, 2018). When designed and implemented in developmentally appropriate ways (Orr, Kamdar, Lewis Presser, Vahey, 2015; Pierce, 2013), digital games can be powerful learning and teaching tools: they can provide individualized support for children to help them better understand and practice concepts and they can model for teachers how to scaffold learning and enable them to see nuances in children’s learning that they might not otherwise observe. Moreover, as stated in a set of guiding principles for early childhood education issued by the US federal government, when used appropriately, technology can greatly increase access to learning opportunities (see United States Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services, 2016 to explore more on the appropriate use of technology in formal early learning settings).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Abstraction: Stripping away extraneous detail in order to identify the core information in a complex situation or problem.

Problem Decomposition: Breaking down a problem into smaller parts that are easier to solve.

Debugging Process: When a solution is not working the way it was intended, reflecting on what was done and figuring out what changes to make to get a better result.

Algorithmic Thinking: Creating a set of ordered steps (sequencing) and then doing them in a particular order to solve a problem or accomplish a task in a way that could be repeated by others (using an algorithm).

Design process: Making something using a three-step process: create something new, test it to see how it works, and improve it using what you learned from testing.

Computational Thinking: A creative way of thinking that empowers children to be systematic problem solvers, enabling them to identify problems and then brainstorm and generate step-by-step solutions that can be communicated and followed by computers or humans.

Digital Games: For the purposes of this chapter, the project team defines digital games as games that are played on a touch screen tablet device, allowing children to manipulate characters and objects through tactile movement rather than through the use of a keyboard and/or mouse.

Pattern Recognition: Noticing when objects, events, or steps repeat or grow in a predictable way (a pattern), as a way to help make sense of situations or problems.

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