Blockly Turtle Playgrounds provide free resources to teachers globally for teaching programming concepts. These can be accessed from the UK Computational Thinking website. There are eight programming playgrounds, progressing from Playground A to Playground H. Each playground adds a few more carefully chosen blocks to the last, enabling children to learn new programming techniques gradually and hence become more creative.
Playground A has just three blocks. It provides the same commands as those available on a floor robot, and has its own mat where teachers can set challenges customised to individual children, or use some of the challenge cards provided (introduced later in this article). The idea is that students will meet familiar problems to those they have solved with Bee-Bots (or any of the other available floor robots) in a new environment that is not at all overwhelming. To keep children focused on the task at hand, don’t share the index page to the Blockly Turtle Playgrounds with them, but instead give them a link directly to the playground they are going to use.
Playground B adds new movement blocks and colour-changing blocks, and replaces the floor robot mat background with a generic drawing background. It provides all the same buttons as those in Playground A and adds the ability to save and upload programs.
Playground C introduces a new loop block and a more technical background and turtle for more precise positioning. Logic blocks are brought into Playground D so that ‘if’ statements can be introduced. Playground E adds maths and variables, while Playground F allows students to create their own functions. Playground G introduces children to some simple robotics.
Progressing through Playgrounds A to G will allow teachers to cover all the programming concepts required for ages 5–11. Students who want to go further can be directed to Playground H or the Oxford University Turtle System. Playground H provides a sophisticated environment in which turtle commands can be combined with all of the standard Blockly blocks. It allows students to use sequencing, selection, iteration, decomposition, and recursion in a block-based language, where typing and formatting errors are avoided. The Oxford University Turtle System lets students try a text-based implementation of Turtle, where turtle commands can be combined with a selection of programming languages, including Python.
Supporting resources are gradually being released and are freely available to download and print. Challenge cards provide a range of challenges that teachers can set their students to help them learn about each new tool and the programming techniques possible in each playground. There are also grade cards provided for children to keep track of their own progress. Each completed grade card awards students with a coloured turtle badge — and the pinnacle of achievement is becoming a Black Shell Turtle Programmer. Auto-marked quizzes are also currently being developed.
Guided discovery learning
The turtle playgrounds give non-specialist teachers a structure they can rely on and the power to select appropriate learning experiences for their students which has, at its heart, a philosophy of guided discovery. Instead of being overwhelmed with a new system, children will be enthused to find out what they can do in each new playground. For example, in Playground A, the movement blocks provided move 80 pixels forward or back, and turn right 90o. This is so the students can use them to navigate from square to square on the provided mat without editing the numbers. However, the numbers are editable, and some children will be very pleased with themselves when they discover that they can move from the centre of a square to the grid lines by moving 40 instead of 80 pixels. They may find this out by using maths or through experimentation. These students will be developing a better sense of the linearity of numbers.
I believe this discovered learning is much more rewarding for children than being told how to do everything and, as the students own the learning, it will last longer. Children do not need to understand that moving 80 pixels is moving a fifth of the distance across the turtle space. They can discover for themselves that reducing 80 pixels in the forward block means the turtle won’t go as far. I am very excited to find out whether teaching computing principles in this way will result in children finding numeracy easier to learn in their maths lessons.
Students learn in different ways. I hope this new resource proves useful for educators who want a system that organises the learning of the key programming principles in primary and lower secondary, and works alongside more familiar resources. It would be great to hear a child who is trying to make a project in Scratch ask: “How do I use functions?” This is the kind of flexible learner I am hoping that the Blockly Turtle Playgrounds can help develop.