Continuing our series on unplugged activities that teach computational thinking, we bring you the Programmable Parent. As a reminder, these games take place away from the screen and teach ideas including algorithms and debugging to children aged three and four. Check out the first post in the series to discover the Leaving the House Routine, and find more fun activities in our free ebook: Beginning Computer Programming for Kids.
This neat exercise, like the one above, can also be applied to a variety of real-life scenarios. Alongside algorithms, children also get a chance to see action causality (if I do this, then that will happen) with satisfying immediacy. They also put logic into practice, as well as tinkering and debugging.
Tell your child that they’re going to help you make jam on toast. Show them a piece you’ve made earlier and tell them the aim of the game is to make it look exactly the same.
Tell the child to imagine that you are a robot and that they have to give you instructions (or write the computer program) on how to make the jam on toast. (This could be a neat, creative opportunity to really bring the activity to life – and drive home your new robotic alter-ego – by making props with the child, such as a robot head out of papier mâché for you to wear, or a ‘control button’ that the child has to press every time they want you to complete a separate step in the process.)
Using your best robot voice, begin by having a conversation with your child about what you need to make the dish. Elicit from them the ingredients (jam, bread, butter) and the utensils (knife, plate, toaster, bread board). Ask how you make toast, to the level of encouraging them to show you where in the kitchen the toaster is and demonstrating how it works.
Once they have the fundamentals ask them to tell you what to do: ‘Please give me your instructions master!’ or something similarly robot-like.
Most likely they’ll make early mistakes like asking you to put jam on before you make the toast, or putting jam on before the butter. Exaggerate these mistakes, while also making it playful and fun, so that the child becomes aware that it’s difficult to do one thing before another. It’s up to them to debug the process on their own. Meanwhile, throughout the exercise it’s up to the parent to gently coax the child toward clear, unambiguous instructions of, say, three to four words. Remember to keep this informal – a conversational approach is best.
Logic is also important here. For example, can I cut the toast on a plate rather than a chopping board and still get the same effect while saving a bit of time and washing up?
Designing an algorithm like this is likely to take a few attempts, and quite a lot of tinkering, to get right. Possible outcomes include the child getting frustrated or angry, or conversely not caring at all. The point is that if it’s made to be fun over a number of attempts the child will come to see that clear instructions can set up a positive and creative outcome.
(To see an example of this activity on film, click here.)
The programmable parent can be adapted to fit a variety of situations:
- Making cereal in the morning;
- Turning on a story tape;
- Buying food in the supermarket, and so on.
For a larger, more creative version of this activity, the programmable parent can play a part within a treasure hunt. Work with the child or children to design a treasure map of their own, being as imaginative as possible. It’s up to them to direct you around the garden. Just as with making toast, there are plenty of opportunities to encourage them to think logically and engage in real-time debugging, with the added benefit of rooting their understanding of these procedures in other areas of knowledge such as nature and storytelling.