Early Childhood

Get a Very Early Start on Teaching Coding Skills. Pilot Study Suggests Trying Robotic Toys

By Lauraine Langreo — June 24, 2022 2 min read
Julian Gresham, 12, left, works in a group to program a Bee-Bot while in their fifth grade summer school class Monday, June 14, 2021, at Goliad Elementary School. Bee-bots and are new to Ector County Independent School District and help to teach students basic programming skills like sequencing, estimation and problem-solving.
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Using age-appropriate coding toys has a significant, positive impact on preschoolers’ math abilities, according to the findings of a pilot study that will be discussed at the 2022 International Society for Technology in Education conference.

Because much of the existing research on the benefits of coding on children’s development were focused on elementary-age kids, Eastern Connecticut State University professor Sudha Swaminathan decided to look into how coding impacts younger children’s development.

The small pilot study was structured as a pre- and post-assessment with coding activities as intervention. Six 4- and 5-year-olds who attend the university’s Center for Early Childhood Education played with a Bee-Bot, a robotic toy shaped like a bumblebee with forward, backward, left, and right arrow buttons, as well as “go” and “clear” buttons, on its back.

The children worked in pairs during four coding sessions with the Bee-Bot. The first coding session was an introduction to the robot so they could play around with it and see what it does, along with some guided demonstration.

In the next sessions, the play time became more intentional. First, the preschoolers had to get the Bee-Bot from point A to point B in a straight line. After that, preschoolers were introduced to turns, and then they had to get the Bee-Bot from point A to point B with obstacles in the way.

Swaminathan found that after doing just these four coding sessions, there was a statistically significant increase in the youngsters’ math abilities overall. The post-assessment found that coding exercises challenged and enhanced the preschoolers’ problem-solving skills, creativity, and determination.

The assessment had a total of 13 items, with one point for each correct answer. At the pre-assessment, the average score across all children was 7. At the post-assessment, the average increased to 9.56, which Swaminathan said is statistically significant. The children showed gains in comparing quantities, comparing lengths, copying and finishing patterns, and building shapes.

“There’s not a lot of research in preschoolers, and my study is showing that there is value in developmentally appropriate coding exercises in preschool,” she said. “Even four sessions are really increasing children’s math abilities.”

Another important aspect of the study is that it uses “unplugged” technology, Swaminathan said. Toys like Bee-Bot stand alone and don’t need to be used with any kind of online software. Other researchers have used computer programming in their studies, but Swaminathan’s study found that unplugged technology is also effective in enhancing children’s computational thinking.

So people who want to teach kids coding skills but are worried about excessive screen time have other options, she said.

She added that using coding toys like Bee-Bot doesn’t require a lot of professional development for teachers.

“Sometimes, people tend to worry about the use of smart toys and how that might take the thinking away from the child,” Swaminathan said. “But something like Bee-Bot, these unplugged things, they don’t do anything unless the child thinks it through and implements it. The child does all the thinking.”

The pilot study was finished in fall 2019 and the full study was supposed to start spring 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic halted those plans. Swaminathan said the full study will start spring 2023.

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