Technological Tools for Playful Learning introduces coding to children

Elementary school students are pictured using Professor Bers' technological tools. Courtesy Hanna Gebretensae

Professor Marina Bers, chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, has been teaching the course Technological Tools for Playful Learning every spring for the 20 years that she has been at Tufts. In the class, students are tasked with creating a curriculum around ScratchJr — a coding software that Bers helped develop — and using those lesson plans to teach children ages four to seven to code. 

Typically, Bers’ students teach in person at various elementary schools in the area, but this year the vast majority of schools that had previously allowed Bers’ students’ lessons chose not to participate. In order to give her students practical teaching experience, Bers redesigned the curriculum to have her students teach over Zoom, using resources from the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School and DevTech, a Tufts-based research group for which Bers serves as the director.

The Eliot-Pearson Children’s School serves both as an early education school and as a laboratory for Tufts’ child study and human development department. 

“[EPCS] is our lab school: a place for experimenting new things or demonstrating new methods of teaching or learning,” Bers said.

The Children’s School had been a partner school for Bers’ class in past years, and is accustomed to experimental teaching methods. In keeping with this innovative spirit, Bers worked with the school’s director, Hanna Gebretensae, to continue the program at EPCS virtually during the pandemic. 

Gebretensae felt confident that Bers’ students could make online coding lessons engaging and exciting for the children, especially given the regular collaboration between EPCS and the Department of Child Study and Human Development.

“We knew that we couldn’t bring [the Tufts students] in person,” Gebretensae said. “But we decided that would definitely not stop us from doing [the program].”

EPCS had been holding in-person education since the fall, so by the time Bers began teaching Technological Tools for Playful Learning this spring, the staff at the EPCS had already had a semester’s worth of practical experience teaching young children during a pandemic.

Gebretensae has found flexibility to be a crucial aspect of teaching during a pandemic. 

“There have been times here and there when cases would come up,” Gebretensae said. “So, when that happens, and we have to close for a day or two … [and] we’ll go virtual.”

This experience adapting to quickly changing circumstances made moving coding lessons online less intimidating for Gebretensae and the staff at EPCS.

“We were able to minimize the number of kids that are working with the [Tufts] students, so that we can have a table of two kids with one or two students [on Zoom], but spread them out in the classroom, so they can really have their space,” Gebretensae said. 

Both Bers and Gebretensae cited the importance of starting technology-based education early as a driving factor in their decision to continue the coding lessons virtually. 

“Coding is a new literacy,” Bers said. “So, if you learn how to code, you’re learning how to think in terms of abstract ideas, in terms of problem-solving. But you’re also learning how to express yourself with new media. And most important, you are learning how to be a citizen of today and tomorrow.” 

Bers also cited social barriers that prevent some students from venturing into STEM disciplines as a factor that added urgency to continuing to hold the program virtually. 

“By third grade, stereotypes about who is good in STEM disciplines are already formed, and it’s usually females and minorities that don’t get into this field,” she said.

Pandemic or not, it remained important to Bers to teach as many young people as possible that coding could be done by anyone.

In many ways, Bers’ course, which is open to undergraduate and graduate students of all disciplines, demonstrates the accessibility of coding. While students who study computer science may create more complicated projects, Bers said everyone can take something away from the course.

“We’re starting in different places and we will get to different places,” Bers said. 

By teaching young children the basics of coding with ScratchJr, any student can take away an essential, baseline-level understanding of how coding and technology impacts their lives.

For Bers’ students, learning how to use ScratchJr seemed manageable, but virtual teaching was intimidating. Morgan Taylor, a first-year studying human factors engineering, said she was not prepared for the challenges that come with online teaching. 

“I think we all [understood] the curriculum, and I think we all mastered ScratchJr itself, but teaching on Zoom is just a whole other ballgame,” Taylor said.

The students themselves needed to be flexible too as they made lesson plans and as the semester progressed. 

“At first, I had to be really flexible and make lots of changes to my original plans that I made before meeting with the kids,” Marti Zentmaier, a first-year with an intended double major in computer science and cognitive and brain science, said. “I made changes so it was more action based — I had smaller programs where the kids were always doing something instead of a bigger project.” 

Zentmaier found that the kids’ attention spans were especially short on Zoom, so these shorter activities kept them focused. 

Overall, the students felt that the most important way to help the children learn was to make activities open-ended and creative. 

“We looked at coding as not just a [computer science] skill, but also a tool for creative self-expression, which kind of broadens the horizons of coding in general,” Khushbu Kshirsagar, a master’s student in science, technology, engineering and math education, said.

Taylor also explained that creativity is at the core of professor Bers’ course. The students’ lessons were guided by a constructionist framework rather than an instructional one, meaning the curriculum was open-ended rather than uniform and command-based. 

Despite the difficulties of teaching on Zoom, Taylor, Zentmaier and Kshirsagar all said that the course was both worthwhile and rewarding. 

“It’s also so great that this whole thing is for a really great cause: teaching computer science education to young children,” Zentmaier said.

Fortunately, the children and their parents have shared Bers, Gebretensae and the Tufts students’ enthusiasm. When EPCS proposed the virtual partnership with Bers’ course, it was met with widespread approval from parents. The lessons, Gebretensae said, have lived up to the initial hopes. 

“It’s been really wonderful to hear from the parents that the kids are excited,” she said.

While Bers hopes to offer this course in person next spring, she has been very thankful for the resilience of her students and the staff at EPCS. 

Gebretensae also expressed gratitude for Bers and her research group, who she said helped them immensely in the process. 

“Marina [Bers] and her team at the DevTech lab have been a really wonderful asset and support to us,” she said. “It’s just great to have the laboratory there and the team there, and to be able to reach out when we need information or resources … We look forward to continuing work with [her] team,” she said.


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