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To code or not to code in the pre-k classroom? Yes, please do.

“As teachers all over the world begin to incorporate coding and computational thinking in early childhood education, may we have the clarity to understand how these can be integrated into pre-existing early childhood education practices. May we see the children in their totality, as individuals with their own voices and their own stories to tell, and not only as problem solvers. May we encourage and support their playfulness as a way of learning” (Bers, 2017, p. 3224).

To code or not to code in the early childhood classroom? Yes, please do.

By: Abigail Fredrickson

"Maze Game in Scratch Jr." By: Wesley Fryer is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

If there is one piece of  advice that is drilled into you as a new parent, it is to limit screen time. Bringing home our first baby, I may have not known how to effectively swaddle or change a diaper, but I did know, “back is best” and “no screen time for children under two.” Yet, screens are something we as parents are constantly interacting with. In those early days of parenting, our parents laughed as we announced that we would not expose our children to screens. Yet screens are such a piece of our world. How could I expect a child not to find interest in the screens and technology that we interact with routinely? Does this abstinence approach to teaching new parents and those who work with our youngest learners do more harm than good? Does coding and computational thinking have a place in early childhood education? Yes, it certainly does.

Mentioning the idea of teaching coding and computational thinking skills to children four and five years old will surely be met with resistance, as some think that such technology should be avoided in early childhood education. Yet researchers like Dr. Marina U. Bers at the Tufts University DevTech research group and Dr. Mitch Resnick at the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group are paving the way in research and development of tools and languages that will make coding and computational thinking accessible and developmentally appropriate for our pre-k and early elementary students. This post aims to show that coding and computational thinking skills can and should be taught to our youngest learners as a new literacy in developmentally appropriate ways that promote a sense of playfulness, curiosity, imagination, and engagement.

Well, what is computational thinking, and what does it look like in early childhood education?

Computational thinking is a term coined by Seymour Papert in the 70s that has been more recently popularized by Jeannette M. Wing in her articles, “Computational Thinking”(2006) and “Computational Thinking, 10 Years Later”(2016) (White House Symposium on Early STEM). At the 2016 White House Symposium on Early STEM, Dr. Marina Bers gave a beautifully simple explanation of computational thinking and what it means in early childhood:
It feels like it’s a new thing. However, the idea of computational thinking is pretty old. You know, Seymour Papert, my mentor back at MIT coined it around the 70s when computers were these big machines, and today it is really picking up. It has taken a long time to pick up. This idea, and basically what we mean is- engaging in some of the prime, power ideas and some of the skills and some of the habits of mind that computer scientists have. What does it mean for early childhood? One big key word: sequencing. So understanding that there is an order on how we do things. That when that order is broken, it doesn’t work, we can go back. We can debug and understand how to create a sequence of steps that match. This has implications beyond STEM (White House Symposium on Early Stem).
The video clip below (watch Bers from 36:00-42:00) from the White House symposium features Dr. Bers not only giving this definition of computational thinking, she goes on to eloquently describe computational thinking’s relationship to literacy and its importance in early childhood education. This clip is six minutes of your life well spent.

Many confuse computational thinking with critical thinking, but computational thinking really goes beyond problem solving. Mitchel Resnick describes how computational thinking helps you to become a better thinker in general:
As you learn to code, you become a better thinker. For example, you learn to break complex problems into simpler parts. You learn how to identify problems and debug them. You learn how to iteratively refine and improve designs over time. Computer scientist Jeannette Wing has popularized the term computational thinking to refer to these types of strategies. Once you learn these computational thinking strategies, they can be useful in all types of activities, not just coding and computer science. By learning to debug computer programs, you’ll be better prepared to figure out what went wrong when a recipe doesn’t work out in the kitchen or when you get lost following someone’s directions. Solving puzzles can be helpful in developing some of these computational thinking skills, but creating your own projects takes you further, helping you develop your voice and develop your identity (Resnick, 2017, p. 48-49).
Both Bers and Resnick encourage us to think beyond a computational thinking simply equals problem solving mindset. Both want us to see coding and computational thinking as a new and important type of literacy.

White House Symposium on Early STEM [Video file]. (2016, April 21). Retrieved from
Dr. Bers writes:
Literacy is a medium of human power. Those who know how to read and write can assert their voices. Those who do not are disenfranchised. Will this be true for those who cannot code? For those who cannot think computationally? It is our responsibility to introduce children to coding and computational thinking when they are young. We know that, as a literacy, coding will open doors, many of them that we cannot anticipate now. But we also know that these young coders are still children. As such, they deserve the best we can give them. It is not enough to copy models of computer science education developed for elementary or high school students. It is not good to give them programming languages created for older children, which are not developmentally appropriate for them (Bers, 2017, p. 3215).

Six Degrees of Seymour Papert

"Seymour Papert lecturing in Moscow about LOGO, computers and education, 1987" by Shen-montpellier is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Seymour’s ideas about learning through making are now starting to gain traction once again, as evidenced by the rise of the Maker Movement. Although Seymour’s work on Logo began more than 50 years ago and his landmark book Mindstorms was published back in 1980, his core ideas are as important and pertinent today as ever before (Resnick, 2017, p. 39).
In researching the teaching of code and computational thinking to youngsters, all roads lead back to Seymour Papert. Papert was a revolutionary thinker who had the foresight, years before the personal computer was introduced, to see that children could use computers to create rather than to just passively receive information. Papert, who worked with the famous psychologist, Jean Piaget, believed that children learn best when they are actively constructing things. Building upon Piaget’s constructivism theory, Papert called his beliefs constructionism (Resnick, 2017, p. 36- 38). Papert’s work included developing Logo, a programming language for children and a robotic turtle that children could program. Papert opened our minds to the possibilities of having young children program, create, and express themselves using code rather than just sitting back and consuming premade technology (Resnick, 2017, p. 36-38). 

Two of Seymour Papert’s former mentees and colleagues, Marina Bers and Mitchel Resnick, are continuing his powerful work and carrying on his legacy by creating new frameworks and technologies that are opening the doors for our youngest learners to learn to code and to use technology as creators rather than consumers.

Marina Bers
In her most recent article, “The Seymour Test: Powerful Ideas in Early Childhood Education,” Bers recounts her first meeting with the famous Papert. As a child in Argentina, Bers’ parents sent her to learn Papert’s programming language, Logo. Decades later, she got to meet and work with Papert, who was her mentor at the MIT Media Lab, but their first encounter was a trip to the grocery store as they struggled to understand each other through her Argentinian accent and his thick South African accent (Bers, In Press). 

Professor Marina Umaschi Bers, PhD, is now the director of the DevTech Research group at Tufts University where she is, “...a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development” ( 

Bers continues Papert’s work by advocating that children have the access and opportunity to use coding and computational thinking to not merely problem solve but to also also create and express themselves. Two of her most influential projects that propel this mission forward are the development of the ScratchJr. and Kibo programming languages that have made coding far more accessible and developmentally appropriate for young children. 

For the past decade, Dr. Bers’ research has focused on young children (ages 4-7) and how to make the integration of computational thinking and coding developmentally appropriate for this age group (Bers, In Press). Her research and her creations have both been instrumental in making this possible.
Inspired by Seymour [Papert]’s vision to create ‘objects to think with’, I engaged in the design of two programming environments that are developmentally appropriate for young children: Scratch Jr., a free app that runs on tablets, and KIBO robotics, a robot kit that can be programmed by putting together sequences of wooden blocks, without requiring screen time from PCs, tablets, or smartphones. Children can program their own robot, program it to do what they want, and decorate it with art supplies (Bers, In Press). 
As a professor of both early childhood education and computer science, Bers and her DevTech research group are concerned with where these two fields of study intersect. She promotes the teaching of computational thinking and coding to youngsters while also encouraging us to consider what is developmentally appropriate for a child. Coding languages designed for adults or even older children such as Scratch are not what is best for our early elementary students. She developed the PTD framework (described in a later section) to address this need to use resources that are most appropriate for the young learner.

Bers' most recent book’s title Coding as a Playground stems from a metaphor she created to help understand the role of technology with young learners. Marina describes how both playgrounds and playpens are created to support children’s play, yet playpens are far more restrictive environments. While playpens may keep children safe while playing with toys, their opportunities to play and explore are far more limited. By contrast, a playground invites more imagination. There is more freedom to explore and create. In this talk from Tedx Jackson (2015), “Young Programmers--Think Playgrounds, Not Playpens,” Dr. Marina Bers, elaborates upon her metaphor and how we need to bring a spirit of play and imagination when we teach young children to program. Bers herself says, “The ‘playground vs. playpen’ metaphor provides a way to understand the kind of developmentally appropriate experiences that new technologies such as programming languages, can promote: problem solving, imagination, cognitive challenges, social interactions, motor skills development, emotional exploration, and making different choices” (Bers, 2017, p. 344). 

"Marina Bers: Young programmers -- think playgrounds, not playpens" by TEDxJackson

Mitchel Resnick

"Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, MIT Media Lab" by Joi Ito is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Mitchel Resnick was also lucky enough to get to work alongside Seymour Papert for many years at MIT (Resnick, 2017, p. 36). In one of their first collaborations Resnick and a team worked with Papert to use Papert’s LOGO programming language to program LEGO bricks. These projects led to the LEGO Mindstorms product which was aptly named after Papert’s famous book, Mindstorms (Resnick, 2017, p. 630). LEGO Mindstorms are now used by millions across the globes to express themselves through robotic creations. (Resnick, 2017, p. 630).

Resnick is currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab. His research group, Lifelong Kindergarten, developped Scratch and in partnership with Marina Bers and others, a version for younger children, ScratchJr. (

"Mitch Resnick: Let's Teach Kids to Code" by Ted is Licensed Under CC BY-NY-ND 4.0 International

From Turtles to Cartoon Cats to Toy Blocks: Developmentally Appropriate Resources to Introduce Coding to Youngsters  

"Seymour Papert" by Gius195 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 


KIBO is a robot designed by Marina Bers’ DevTech research group at Tufts University. It is designed with the PTD framework in mind (see below for more on PTD) to be developmentally appropriate for young children (ages 4-7). It allows children to learn to code without any screentime. The coding language the children use to program Kibo is on wooden blocks that are connected with pegs. Children then use Kibo to scan the program they created (Bers, 2017, p. 300). 

The video above  shows a child programming Kibo using these blocks. As one of the creators of Scratch Jr., Bers is not adverse to using screens to teach children to code, but as the creator of the PTD framework, she is very attuned to the needs of young children to have exposure to collaboration and physical movement while they learn. In a study Bers authored with other researchers at Tufts, "The Impact of User Interface on Young Children’s Computational Thinking," Bers found that young children can learn coding and computational thinking skills from both tangible interfaces like the wooden blocks of Kibo and graphical interfaces found in Scratch Jr. They found that the interface is one of many factors that impacts a child’s positive development and that adults should be aware that the type of interface can impact a child’s learning (Pugnali, 2017, p.1).
With ScratchJr, coding happens on the screen. With KIBO robotics, it happens with blocks, without screens of any kind. The concept, prototypes and research for KIBO were born in my Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University back in 2011 through generous funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). KIBO became commercially available worldwide in 2014 through KinderLab Robotics (see www.Kinderlabrobotics. com) The powerful ideas behind KIBO are similar to ScratchJr, however the key concept is to provide a coding environment in which children can engage in similar experiences as they do in a playground [20]. They can use their bodies, as well as their minds. The KIBO programming language is composed of wooden blocks with pegs and holes that can be inserted into each other forming a tangible sequence of commands. Each block represents an instruction for KIBO: forward, shake, wait for clap, light on, beep, etc. Designed with a playground approach, KIBO supports children in making almost anything: a character from a story, a carousel, a dancer, a dog sled. The possibilities are endless, as wide as children’s own imaginations [17,21,22]. The child puts together a sequence of instructions (a program) using the wooden KIBO blocks. Then, they scan the blocks with the KIBO body to tell the robot what to do. Finally, they press a button and the robot comes ‘‘alive’’. KIBO engages children in becoming programmers, engineers, problem solvers, designers, artists, dancers, choreographers and writers (see Fig. 2) (Bers In Press).

Scratch Jr.

"ScratchJr." By: Terry Freedman licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Scratch Jr. was created by Marina Bers’ DevTech research group at Tufts in collaboration with Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and the PICO company for children ages 5-7 (Bers, 2017, p. 3232).
In many ways, Scratch is the digital equivalent of the LEGO construction kit. With LEGO bricks, children build their own houses and castles, rather than simply playing with premade houses and castles. With Scratch, children program their own stories and games, rather than simply interacting with premade stories and games (Resnick, 2017, p. 46). 
Over six million children worldwide are now using ScratchJr. to create their own stories and programs, and it has been translated into several languages (Bers, In Press).
ScratchJr was designed and developed by my DevTech research group at Tufts University in collaboration with Mitch Resnick’s LifeLong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab and Paula Bonta and Brian Silverman from the PICO company in Canada [18]. To date over six million young children all over the world are using ScratchJr to create their own projects and it has been translated to several languages (see Fig. 1). Furthermore, in December 2015 an extension was launched in collaboration with PBS KIDS. Children are now able to also create their own projects using their favorite cartoon characters from popular TV shows. Inspired by the popular Scratch [19], the powerful ideas behind ScratchJr are simple: an introductory programming language, designed to be developmentally appropriate, that enables young children (ages 5 to 7) to create their own interactive stories and games. Children snap together graphical programming blocks to make characters perform various actions (e.g., move, jump, dance, and sing). Using ScratchJr does not require the ability to read or write. It was designed to reinforce and train abilities like sequencing, understanding of causality, and problem (Bers, In Press).
In her book, Coding as a Playground, Marina Bers opens her introduction with the story of Liana, a 5-year-old girl, who is using the Scratch Jr. to program its iconic cartoon cat on an iPad in her kindergarten classroom. She writes: 
During this experience, Liana engaged with some of the most powerful ideas of computer sciences that are accessible for a young child. She also developed computational thinking. She learned that a programming language has a syntax in which symbols represent actions. She understood that her choices had an impact on what was happening on the screen. She was able to create a sequence of programming blocks to represent a complex behavior (e.g., appearing and disappearing). She used logic in a systematic way to correctly order the blocks in a sequence. She practiced and applied the concept of patterns, which she had learned earlier in the year during math time in class. She learned new blocks that allowed her to achieve her goals. She discovered the concept of loops and parameters. At the same time, she engaged in problem solving and also exercised her tenacity at tackling something she truly cared about (i.e., having a very long kitten movie) (Bers, 2017, p. 286).
Bers goes on to explain how young children like Liana, at just 5 years old, are empowered by ScratchJr. to express themselves through storytelling and animation. She writes, “ Coding is not only a cognitive activity that involves problem solving and mastering programming concepts and skills, but also an expressive medium that engages emotional and social domains” (Bers, 2017, p. 292). This is the dream for our young learners to use accessible programs and coding languages like ScratchJr. to not merely “learn code” or to solve a problem but to see themselves as little people who can harness the power of technology to create and express themselves creatively. We want our young children to see technology as something as more than entertainment, but as a means of self-expression. We want the technology in our early childhood classrooms to engage children not in just problem solving, but in these “emotional and social domains.” Through the example of Liana, we can see how ScratchJr. can be a vehicle to do just that.

Frameworks for Using Technologies with Young Learners


PTD is a framework developed by Marina Bers to frame the introduction and use of technology with youngsters in a positive light by looking at the following six Cs: communication, community building, content creation, creativity, and choice of conduct. This model is informed by the Positive Youth Development Model of child development really taking into account the unique developmental needs of our youngest set of learners ages (4-7) (Bers, 2017, p. 1860). Bers describes her model here:
PTD is a natural extension of the computer literacy and the technological fluency movements that have influenced the world of education and technology, but it also incorporates psychosocial, civic, and ethical components. PTD examines the developmental tasks of a child growing up in our digital era, and provides a model for designing and evaluating technology-rich youth programs. The explicit goal of educational programs guided by a PTD framework is not only to teach children how to code or to think in computational ways, but to engage them in positive behaviors. Within the PTD framework, the vision of coding as literacy that empowers individuals can be implemented” (Bers, 2017, p. 1866).
One would think that Seymour Papert would be proud of the work of Marina Bers, his mentee at MIT, seeing as much like Papert, she has really merged the field of child development and computer science to help youngsters to construct in developmentally appropriate ways. Bers’ work has been invaluable when it comes to making coding and computational thinking more accessible to younger children.

For further information on the PTD framework, its origins, and intent, please see the chapter, “Positve Technological Development: The Multifaceted Nature of Youth Technology Use toward Improving Self and Society” by Marina Bers, Alicia Doyle-Lynch, and Clement Chau from Constructing the Self in a Digital World (2012) as well as chapter 8 “Personal Growth through Coding” of Marina Bers’ new book Coding as a Playground (2017). 

The DevTech website features a page on PTD where you can find useful visuals and tools to help you better understand and implement the PTD framework yourself.

4 Ps

Mitch Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT have developed a set of four guiding principles to help educators to develop youngsters' creative thinking skills: projects, passion, peers, and play (Resnick, 2017, p. 15). Resnick’s newest book, Lifelong Kindergarten, is organized in chapters that each focus on one of these Ps. Both Bers’ PTD framework and Resnick’s 4 Ps bring to light the importance of making coding and computational thinking a collaborative, playful, creative process that builds engagement through choice and autonomy.

Further Reading: Kindergarten and Playgrounds

This five-page article gives a beautiful update on Dr. Marina Bers’ work, the state of integrating technology into early childhood education, and Papert’s continued influence on this field of study. This article is more than scholarly research; it really captivates you on a human level. This piece has a great voice.
This book explores bringing a sense of playfulness to coding for young children, what computational thinking looks like for youngsters, looking at coding as a literacy, and what developmentally appropriate integration of coding looks like.

In Bers own words, “This book explores the role of coding for young children. Most specifically, it focuses on the developmental milestones and learning experiences that children can attain by becoming programmers and by thinking like computer scientists. Coding engages children as producers, and not merely consumers, of technology” (Bers, 2017, p. 283).

“Despite this need, this book does not advocate for coding in early childhood as a way to fulfill the workforce’s demands. This book proposes that coding is a new literacy for the twenty-first century. As a literacy, coding enables new ways of thinking and new ways of communicating and expressing ideas” (Bers, 2017, p. 378).

This book truly embodies the mindset of bringing play into a meaningful learning environment not just for our youngest learners but for learners of all ages. With an engaging forward by Sir Ken Robinson, this book is engaging from beginning to end.


Works Cited

Bers, M. (2008). Blocks to robots: Learning with technology in the early childhood classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Bers, M. U. (2010). The TangibleK Robotics Program: Applied Computational Thinking for Young Children . Early Childhood Research & Practice , 12(2). Retrieved from

Bers, M., Doyle-Lynch, A., & Chau, C. (2012). Positive technological development: The multifaceted nature of youth technology use toward improving self and society. In Ching, C. C. & Foley, B. J. (Eds.) Constructing the Self in a Digital World (pp. 110-136). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bers, M. U. (2017). Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom.

Bers, M. U. (in press). The Seymour test: Powerful ideas in early childhood education. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction.

Elkin, M., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2016) Programming with the KIBO Robotics Kit in Preschool Classrooms, Computers in the Schools, 33:3, 169-186, DOI: 10.1080/07380569.2016.1216251.

KinderLab Robotics: KIBO - Making thinking tangible by programming robots in early childhood[Video file]. (2014, June 11). Retrieved from

Marina Bers: Young programmers -- think playgrounds, not playpens
[Video file]. (2015, January 20). Retrieved from

Mitch Resnick: Let's Teach Kids to Code [Video file]. (2012, November). Retrieved from

Pugnali, A., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2017). The Impact of User Interface on Young Children’s Computational Thinking. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 16, 171-193. doi:10.28945/3768

Resnick, M. (2017). Lifelong kindergarten cultivating creativity through projects, passion, peers, and play.

Strawhacker, A., Portelance, D., Lee, M., & Bers, M.U. (2015). Designing Tools for Developing Minds: The role of child development in educational technology. In Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC '15). ACM, Boston, MA, USA.

Wing, J. M. (2006). Computational Thinking . Communications on the ACM , 49(3), 33-35. Retrieved from

Wing, J. M. (2016, March 23). Computational Thinking, 10 Years Later [Web log post]. Retrieved from

White House Symposium on Early STEM [Video file]. (2016, April 21). Retrieved from