Many aspects of CT are already being taught in preschool. For example, we looked at England’s early years foundation stage (EYFS) framework (helloworld.cc/EYFS) to see if any themes crossed over with CT themes (see Table 1). The framework has overarching early learning goals (ELGs) and there are clear links to CT within each of the goals. For example, singing and dancing together in the Hokey Cokey is an established method of teaching young children the basics of an algorithm (helloworld.cc/bers2014) and is recommended in ELGs about communication and language; ELGs about literacy; and ELGs in personal, social, health, and economic (PSHE) education about interacting together. In addition, there are many opportunities for cross-curricular learning that support CT within early years education, such as ordering and sequencing in maths.
However, we believe that the focus needs to be more on how we can encourage children to think critically and problem-solve, and how practitioners can teach CT using guided play activities. We believe that CT and broader critical-thinking skills can be taught in preschools through unplugged or non-digital activities. So, how can children in the early years progress from no knowledge to a level that infant teachers can work upon? What prerequisite themes, skills, and concepts will support formalised education? And how can infant teachers assess these skills?
Guided play and CT
In nursery and preschool environments, practitioners often teach through guided play — a range of playful activities between adults and children that give children the freedom to explore a learning objective, but in a more systematic way. Guided unplugged play activities that provide an ideal basis for CT can take different approaches, including asking children to order a sequence and then working out together whether it was correct. For example, you could ask children to mix up icing or cut out biscuit shapes. Children may use logical reasoning (what equipment do you need?) or work out a sequence (what do you do first?). In this way, guided play can provide the processes and procedures required in many tasks and situations.
Table 2 shows an example of a lesson plan for bathing a baby doll in which CT concepts are highlighted. In this example, there can be a number of learning objectives, such as communication and collaboration; carrying out given instructions; logical reasoning and sequencing; and identifying and debugging. Teachers will have their own priorities according to the children in their groups or classes, and their ages.
Using familiar play items and activities can give adults an opportunity, through guided play, to extend children’s learning and make the links to CT more explicit by introducing critical thinking, learning through debugging, making mistakes, and listening to each other. For EYFS-aged children, guided play brings a different element of interest to the children; they learn these concepts almost through osmosis. Children are focused on completing the task, but they are also learning the foundations for what will be expected in their first year of primary school.
Assessing CT skills is not easy. How can you assess a child’s critical or logical thinking? There is simply not much research in this area. There are no guidelines on what children are expected to know, or definitive benchmarks or milestones on when they are expected to know things. One approach is a scoring system based on how much adult intervention is required with specific activities, or whether a child has achieved simple success criteria — for example, has the child continued with a repeating pattern correctly? Another approach is simply talking to pupils and listening to their responses: how do they feel? Did they enjoy it? Did they learn new things? Can they talk to us about what they learnt? While such talk might not explicitly be a CT concept, this process of metacognition is valuable.
Assessment more generally in preschool is usually based on observation, and is often recorded in individual student records with photos of particular activities and a short, written description to note the child’s development stage. For more formal or summative assessments, activities can be set up so that individual children can be more accurately assessed using a holistic viewpoint across several ELGs. This can be seen in the lesson plan in Table 2, where a number of the CT concepts cross over with ELGs. We can also ask children to self-assess their abilities by completing a task using an ‘I can…’ list of learning outcomes.
The picture shows two children from a small group aged two to four carrying out the ‘bathing a baby’ activity. The children had to choose the equipment they needed to carry out the activity, and it was noted that this group chose everything correctly, except that they needed water (see lesson plan). The two-year-old girl (at the top of the photo) needed some help from an adult to wash the doll, whereas the four-year-old showed that she could work independently. The younger child might have found it difficult to hold the doll and wash it because her fine motor skills had not yet developed, or she may not have been very confident, whereas the older child showed that she could wipe the soap on a flannel.
This kind of guided play activity fits into the specific EYFS learning area ‘Understanding the world’, which involves guiding children to make sense of their physical world and their community. It would therefore not be expected that a younger child would know as much as an older child. These are the kind of assessments that a teacher who knows the children needs to make, so that they can make a ‘best fit’ judgement for the children’s individual records. England’s government guidance states that preschool staff may also complete charts of achievement for each child based on two assessment targets: emerging skills (not yet met the EYFS expected level of ability) and expected level of skills (met the EYFS level). Using guided play activities such as the ‘bathing a baby’ activity means that children can be assessed for their ELGs alongside CT concepts involving problem-solving and critical thinking.
We hope these suggestions are helpful to practitioners, and that they will aid the transition of CT skills from preschool or nursery settings to the first year of primary school, therefore providing a solid foundation that will help support this important ability.
Turn to page 57 to read our article about introducing unplugged coding to preschool children
Read more of our research looking at teaching programming to preschool children through guided play activities
Hannah Hagon works in legal IT but has a passion for supporting children, parents, and teachers with screen-free activities to develop skills that will help fill the skills gap.
Valerie Critten was an IT teacher in a special school and now works as a supervisor on the EdD programme at the Open University.
David Messer is emeritus professor of education at the Open University and visiting professor at City, University of London.