Wheaton students choose computers over recess

  • Third-graders Jacob Valentino and Will Svach use computer coding written on an iPad to command a sphero robot ball to move and change colors. More than 50 students at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton skip recess each Monday to take part in the school's new coding club, which has introduced them to kid-friendly websites like Hour of Code and Code.org.

      Third-graders Jacob Valentino and Will Svach use computer coding written on an iPad to command a sphero robot ball to move and change colors. More than 50 students at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton skip recess each Monday to take part in the school's new coding club, which has introduced them to kid-friendly websites like Hour of Code and Code.org. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Fifth-graders Blake Witter, Kayden Rothery and Gray Cicmanec use coding on an iPad to move a sphero robot ball during a coding club meeting at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton.

      Fifth-graders Blake Witter, Kayden Rothery and Gray Cicmanec use coding on an iPad to move a sphero robot ball during a coding club meeting at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Kindergartners Jackson Caruso, Matthew Walter and Khalid Shamout work on coding in lieu of recess at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton.

      Kindergartners Jackson Caruso, Matthew Walter and Khalid Shamout work on coding in lieu of recess at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

For many adults, coding sounds like a complicated, mysterious task.

It's something they might think only educated computer programmers can use, something that involves carefully stringing together random letters and numbers to create software and websites.

In reality, coding can be simple enough to be used by anyone with logical thinking skills.

Just ask the kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton, who are so enthused about coding that they are skipping recess each Monday to use the skill to create digital art, design video games and make robots move.

More than 50 students are now part of the school's coding club, which officially began this school year with help from the parent teacher association, the NEW 200 Foundation and the leadership of third-grade teacher Barb Anderson and library learning center director Taryn Parise.

"It exploded much bigger than I expected it to," Anderson said. "I think they like the power of it. I think they like understanding, 'Oh, that's how you make that happen.'"

On a recent afternoon, kids partnered up with each other and huddled around Dell laptops, their faces full of concentration and determination as they worked on a coding site designed for kids. They gently pressed the mouse pads with their small fingers, experimenting with different ways to code using colorful click and drag features to piece together necessary components to build a digital creation.

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They quickly dismissed messages that said they did something wrong and kept trying, the whole time paying no attention to their classmates playing outside on the playground.

On the other side of the library, older students typed code onto an iPad, creating commands that made small, round robots move across the floor.

"This is a great skill for kids to experience, even if they're not going to be computer programmers -- just the idea that you try and fail, you try and fail, tweaking, figuring out what you did wrong, working at it," Parise said. "We don't want failure to be seen as a bad thing. You didn't get it, so you don't quit. What can you change? How can you try something different to make it work?"

Anderson said she introduced coding at the school three years ago through Hour of Code, an international movement to introduce students to coding through one-hour online tutorials. After seeing the great response from students, she hosted two after-school events with parents, to give them a taste of what their children were learning.

Both events sold out, with more than 30 people participating in each. By then, other teachers also were suggesting Anderson start a coding club.

Anderson said she is impressed with the leadership skills the students are learning from the club, in addition to basic math and science skills.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Now I fully lean on them to be my co-instructors, because they know more than I do. I'm really proud of how the older kids have stepped in. It gives them an opportunity to be leaders and teachers and then they're teaching one another, which I get very excited about," she said.

She is also pleased the club is drawing in an even mix of boys and girls.

"There still is that gender perception that it's more for guys than girls, and I really want the girls to push beyond that," she said. "I want the guys to understand that there's a whole lot more to computers than just gaming, that there's actually a lot of math and science that goes behind it."

Anderson encouraged other teachers who are interested in introducing coding at their schools to start with Hour of Code or Code.org and to not be scared to dive in.

Parise added that educators should prepare to be amazed by the enthusiasm of the students.

"Even though it doesn't directly tie in to, say, the science curriculum, it is teaching kids to think logically, to problem solve and to independently work through things," she said.

"It gives them a feeling of success, like 'I can do this, I can do something I thought was too complicated.' It's play in school, but play with a purpose."

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