Lab Awesome’s Guide to Coding with Kids – Part 1: Coding with Younger Children

In this guide, Ian explores why we should code with children; looks at coding toys for pre-schoolers and suggests simple and fun games and techniques to introduce children to coding at home (and outdoors!) without computers.

Why code with children?

In 2014, the UK became the first country in the G7 to make Computer Science in school compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16.

Our son is in Year 1 and he has already begun learning about algorithms (a set of rules or steps that are followed in a calculation or process). Coding is on the curriculum for all children.

At school, Danny has been using Beebots to learn coding principles. Beebots are a fantastic mix between a toy and a throwback to the old LOGO programming activity some of you might have used at school (remember those BBC computers?). The Beebot itself is a small robot with buttons on the top that can be programmed either by using the buttons or by connecting it to a tablet or computer with the Beebot app installed. The Beebot can be programmed to move in different directions, to turn around and pause.

Coding has proven to be a difficult curriculum addition for many primary schools due to a lack of specialist staff. In my day job, I have worked with a number of primary schools, developing methods for teaching coding at Key Stages 1 and 2.

And if you haven’t got experience of programming, the idea of getting into coding may give you a headache but over the next few weeks, I will run through some of the innovative tools and straightforward techniques that you can use to get started.

I will be posting about coding with younger children; the LEGO-based coding products available and some of the more advanced coding products and projects that you might want to investigate if you’re feeling adventurous. I’ll be advising you about some of the most accessible resources on the market and about the very good ones that you can use for free.


Coding toys for pre-schoolers

Steve Jobs famously said, “everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think” and with the introduction of coding to the national curriculum, it’s no wonder that pre-school toy companies are now producing innovative coding toys.

Fisher Price Think and Learn Code-A-Pillar

Perhaps the most high-profile recent pre-school coding toy is the Fisher Price Think and Learn Code-A-Pillar (£59.50).

The Code-A-Pillar is a clever way to combine a sturdy, appealing and colourful toy for pre-schoolers with an intuitive coding system. The caterpillar-shaped robot is made from nine connecting segments with each segment operating a particular, simple command, e.g. go forward, turn right. When children join and arrange the segments, they are creating an algorithm for the Code-A-Pillar to follow.

Code-A-Pillar is supplied with two target discs that you can position to create a destination for your robot to reach or a route for it to manoeuvre. This allows children to think and plan, testing their programming and problem-solving skills.

While it’s expensive for a pre-school toy, the Code-A-Pillar is fun to play with and straightforward to use; in other words, it provides a great introduction to the principles of coding. It also has longevity and I guarantee that older children and adults will be playing with this one long after the toddlers have gone to bed.

The Vtech Toot Toot ranges

The Vtech Toot Toot ranges (recommended for ages 1-5) have a broad appeal and are a colourful and cost-friendly toy with a wide range of products available to suit different interests. These themed track sets allow children to build and play while the SmartPoint Technology (vehicles, animals or figures interact with certain sections of track) teach young people about cause and effect while also encouraging imaginative play.


Cubetto, the ‘friendly wooden robot’ from Primo, once again provides screen-free programming fun for pre-schoolers. This impressive toy comes with a premium price tag (RRP £195). Cubetto is supplied with a wooden Control Board, coloured wooden blocks and a map for the robot to navigate. Children send Cubetto home by positioning the blocks (each colour has a different operation) on the Control Board to programme his journey. When they’ve planned and coded their route, children press the blue button on the Control Board and the little wooden robot will follow their algorithm to cross the map.

Cubetto is suitable for children aged three and up and a range of extension packs are available that send Cubetto on adventures across the globe and even through space. There are also extra blocks to buy and Logic and Colouring packs that will interest older children.

The Cubetto webpage and videos are well worth a look; they’re fun and child-friendly – ours enjoyed them!

ThinkFun Robot Turtles Board Game

The much more modestly-priced Robot Turtles Board Game is suitable for children aged 4 and over. Players have to navigate their turtle play pieces through mazes and obstacles to collect jewels by playing cards with different operations. It’s a nice idea (particularly if you can get a few children playing this together) and a good introduction to some of the basic principles of coding.


Home-made coding fun (without a computer!)

While there are a lot of great coding toys out there, it’s worth remembering that an understanding of cause and effect and breaking down instructions into a sequence small, logical steps is at the heart of coding. Children’s awareness of this can be developed without gadgets. And it can be done in the great outdoors! Here are some simple suggestions (robot costumes optional!):

  • Programme a path: get out and collect a pile of stones or pebbles. Paint (and if you can, varnish) the pebbles or stones different colours to represent different commands, e.g. blue=forward; red=pause; yellow=spin and green=hop. Once you have a collection, get back outdoors and take turns designing pebble paths and then moving along them, completing the functions of the different pebbles as you reach them.
  • Listen and follow: blindfold a volunteer and give them instructions to follow to get from one point to another in your local park or even at home. Make it fun by including obstacles to navigate. Better still, have them blindfold you and give the instructions (although you might benefit from having another adult about to spot you on this one!).
  • Breaking codes: children love cracking codes and they’re great for teaching problem-solving skills. For pre-readers, try making codes that give simple or silly instructions using pictures.
  • Copying patterns: string beads or cotton reels on string into colour patterns. Give children their own string and beads to copy patterns and to design repeating patterns of their own.
  • Listen and build..with LEGO or DUPLO: for slightly older children, a great DUPLO or LEGO-based game that encourages giving precise and sequenced instructions is as follows… build a simple model from DUPLO or LEGO bricks which is then hidden behind a screen or in a box. One child should be able to see the build. They should call commands to another child or children who need to re-create the model as closely as they can using a set of DUPLO or LEGO blocks that can be used to build the same model. This works really well as a competition with teams competing to re-create their model as closely as possible in the shortest space of time. This also works with drawing pictures and mini-whiteboards and erasers are a really useful resource for this. Children can sit back to back and there’s no models to prepare.

Above all, when it comes to coding (as with any STEM activity attempted with young children), the emphasis should be on fun, play and inspiring curiosity.

Next week on BAB, I’ll be reviewing and explaining the best LEGO coding products.

Any comments or suggestions for getting started with younger coders? We’d love you to share your ideas below.

January 12, 2018

  • This is such a great post filled with useful information and brilliant ideas. I’ll definitely be trying some of these with my children! Thank you 🙂

  • I teach Computer Science at secondary school level to students who don’t have any coding experience – I tend to introduce them to coding using a few “bigtrak” vehicles. They’re only around £30 each and the kids love using them (from year 7 all the way up to year 13!). My usual approach is to use a few mini traffic cones to mark out a course and challenge the students to program the vehicles to complete the course

    • Thank you, what a great tip! It’s lovely to hear from you. We’ll have a look at these – it sounds like a brilliant way to introduce coding.

  • Lovely post – a great roundup. I run a Code Club for kids at the top end of KS2 and whilst a lot of what we do is with online coding applications such as Scratch I try and make time for some stuff without a screen. Getting some of the kids to direct me around the classroom and watching them as I bump into tables and chairs that they didn’t tell me to avoid is always enlightening.

    I’m looking forward to your next post…

    • Thanks Adam. Your club sounds like a lot of fun and we always like to hear new ideas! We’ll be posting about Coding with LEGO next week – we hope you enjoy it!

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