Computational Thinking in Play

Computational thinking (CT) is a skill that is an integral part of STEM. It builds directly upon many aspects present in children’s play, such as curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, pattern recognition, and simulation. It can be smoothly integrated into classrooms and even at-home environments with the help of adults.

Computational thinking is made up of several competencies1. These are individual skills and tools that display computational thinking. Some examples are: algorithms and procedures, automation, data analysis, and pattern recognition. Algorithms and procedures are, in their basic form, a set of instructions. They can be followed by a user or a computer.  Automation is creating tasks to be executed by a computer. It can help save time and utilizes technology to optimize processes. Data analysis includes finding trends and patterns in data sets. While these sound like computer terms, CT applies to many more subjects than coding. Patterns are used in art, math, and writing, to name a few. In this way, CT can be connected to other learning targets in a classroom.

Mochi In this year’s gift guide, Mochi Robotics Kit does a great job of introducing young children to algorithms. They can put movement blocks in different orders and watch as Mochi moves according to their algorithm. The Mochi Robotics Kit also demonstrates automation in its FUNction blocks. The user can create an order of actions to be executed by the robot as the computer interprets them one at a time. The function can be executed multiple times in a row. 

codingcharms_200px.jpgAlso in this year’s gift guide, Coding Charms highlights the interplay between coding and art. It uses fuse beads to visually demonstrate how patterns come to life. It introduces coding vocabulary and concepts in a way that appeals to children’s interests. Coding Charms is an excellent example of how CT can be taught even to young children.

Computational thinking is a skill that not only can be taught, but also caters to children’s natural abilities. Teaching methods can be just as important as choosing appropriate teaching tools. Our Engineering Gift Guide can suggest some toys that encourage computational thinking, but children benefit most when thinking strategies are modeled for them by an adult! They look to caretakers and teachers for behavior cues.

Some important strategies when modeling computational thinking are; using appropriate vocabulary, asking thought-provoking questions, leading thought development, and highlighting overlap with other subjects. Proper CT vocabulary use allows children to become familiar with the terminology and build a foundation for later learning. Don’t be afraid to use words like “algorithm”, “function”, and “coding” when they apply! Asking leading questions can help children understand what they should be thinking about in a problem. It provides a template for problem-solving that children can refer back to and eventually use by themselves. Bringing attention to other subjects CT relates to helps children visualize connections between different fields of study and understand the interdisciplinary aspects of STEM. All of these strategies together build confidence in students when completing STEM activities.

It is important to structure play and learning with CT in mind to help children gain early exposure to such a widely-used concept. Confidence in STEM abilities can be built up from a young age such that by middle- and high-school, thinking processes in subjects like math and science come naturally to children2. These skills are important for many fields beyond just those in STEM, and will be useful to any child’s future. Children’s play is a great opportunity for learning and confidence-building, and the strategies outlined here can play a role in helping a child develop skills they will use for a lifetime.

Written by Katherine Schieltz


1 Dasgupta, A., Rynearson, A., Purzer, S., Ehsan, H., & Cardella, M. (2017). Computational Thinking in K-2 Classrooms: Evidence from Student Artifacts (Fundamental). 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings.

2 Hynes, M., Cardella, M., Moore, T., Brophy, S., Purzer, S., Tank, K., Menekse, M., Yeter, I., & Ehsan, H. (2019). Inspiring Young Children to Engage in Computational Thinking In and Out of School (Research to Practice). 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings.