Preparing children for the future: Robot programming in early childhood education
The field of early childhood education (ECE) has seen a rise in the use of programmable robotics to introduce coding, computational thinking (CT), and sequencing ability to young learners. While this approach has shown promise, there is still a need for further research to compare the effectiveness of robot programming with more traditional ECE activities. To address this gap, our study sought to investigate the effects of a robot programming intervention compared to a block play program on kindergarteners’ CT, sequencing ability and self-regulation. The findings of our study, as reported by Yang et al. (2022), provide important insights into the potential benefits of incorporating programmable robotics into ECE curriculums and highlight the need for further research in this area.
Researchers have claimed that screen-free robot programming is a developmentally appropriate tool for enhancing young children’s STEM-related cognitive abilities, including CT and sequencing ability, in the context of ECE (Su et al., 2022). This approach has shown great promise in promoting children’s engagement with STEM subjects and developing their problem-solving skills. However, it is important to note that traditional ECE activities can also be highly effective in promoting children’s cognitive development. For example, block play has been shown in prior research to promote children’s understanding of multiple concepts and skills, including maths thinking and even CT (Schmitt et al., 2018; Trawick-Smith et al., 2017).
In this study, the robot programming kit that we used is Matatalab, which provides a block-based, screen-free and tangible programming environment for children aged four or above. An unplugged CT assessment was used to measure and compare the effects of both robot programming and block play interventions among preschool children by six categories of CT concepts: algorithms, modularity, control structures, representation, hardware/software, and debugging (Bers, 2021).
‘Interestingly, our findings also indicated that children in the robot programming group who had lower levels of self-regulation at baseline demonstrated greater improvements in sequencing ability over time in comparison to the block play group.’
Although the difference in CT between the two groups was non-significant, the results of our study showed greater improvements in response to the robot programming intervention across various outcomes in comparison to block play, particularly in sequencing ability, which has been identified as a strong predictor of early coding skills (Bers, 2021). Interestingly, our findings also indicated that children in the robot programming group who had lower levels of self-regulation at baseline demonstrated greater improvements in sequencing ability over time in comparison to the block play group. Additionally, we found that older children in the robot programming group showed larger improvements in CT over time when compared with the block play group. These findings highlight the potential benefits of incorporating programmable robotics into ECE curriculums and suggest that the effects of the intervention may be moderated by individual differences such as age and self-regulation.
The present study makes the methodological contribution by using an unplugged CT assessment and a pretest-posttest randomised experimental design, breaking the limitations of evaluating the impact of traditional learning experiences on CT outcomes in previous studies. Theoretically, this study also provides an evidence-based argument that digital learning programs can outperform traditional learning activities in promoting children’s school readiness skills such as sequencing ability and CT. Our findings shed light on the vital role of robot programming and CT education in promoting positive digital learning experiences in ECE and lend support to technology-enhanced curriculum reform in ECE settings. In addition, teachers are also suggested to receive training in robot programming in addition to more traditional skills such as scaffolding children’s block play.
Bers, M. U. (2021). Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Schmitt, S. A., Korucu, I., Napoli, A. R., Bryant, L. M., & Purpura, D. J. (2018). Using block play to enhance preschool children’s mathematics and executive functioning: A randomized controlled trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 181–191.
Su, J., Yang, W., & Li, H. (2022). A scoping review of studies on coding curriculum in early childhood: Investigating its design, implementation, and evaluation. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 1–21.
Trawick-Smith, J., Swaminathan, S., Baton, B., Danieluk, C., Marsh, S., & Szarwacki, M. (2017). Block play and mathematics learning in preschool: The effects of building complexity, peer and teacher interactions in the block area, and replica play materials. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 15(4), 433–448.
Yang, W., Ng, D. T. K., & Gao, H. (2022). Robot programming versus block play in early childhood education: Effects on computational thinking, sequencing ability, and self-regulation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 53(6), 1817–1841.