How to Explain Algorithms to Kids

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The following is a guest blog written by a CodeMonkey Teacher Ambassador.

Isn’t the word “Algorithm” daunting? Now imagine you are a 5-year-old and your teacher drops the Algorithm bomb. You can barely say it much less spell or understand it. As a teacher, how do you explain algorithm to kids? You don’t. You allow them to discover what it is by modeling it to them. I do this with a few unplugged activities. You can either create your own, use the ones listed below, or think outside of the box and create algorithm manipulatives.

Websites where you can find algorithm activities:

  • www.code.org These lesson plans are great. They are completely scripted for the novice CS teacher. I love how they include enrichment exercises and cross-curricular standards (CSTA K-12 Computer Science, Common Core ELA & Math, and Next Generation Science Standards). I would have to make a few minor adjustments to the lesson plans in order to get top evaluator marks, but nevertheless they are awesome resources. They even tie in journaling and reflecting as part of the closure. These lesson plans are part of Code.org’s CS Fundamentals (2019 – 2020) Course A Curriculum.
    • Lesson 3: Happy Maps – Get the Flurb to the fruit. In this activity, students learn basic commands (Up, Down, Left, and Right) to move the Flurb to the end of the puzzle to capture the fruit. I tried it with Kindergarten, but I rushed the Warm-Up. A word of advice – “Don’t rush the Warm-Up activity with Kindergarten!” My Kinders had trouble figuring out which way the arrows should go on the Flurb maps. You may need to explain the concept of an arrow to younger children. Kindergarteners get really excited with scissors and glue. Suggestion: Laminate cards and have students use a dry erase marker to draw the arrows. It makes it easier to correct mistakes, plus no paper to clean up from the floor (or glue from kids and desks).
    • Lesson 4: Sequencing with Scrat – This activity is for the computer lab, and it also includes a mini-lesson on computer lab do’s and don’ts. However, it has a link to Unplugged Blockly Blocks (Grades K-1) – Manipulatives. I really like the manipulatives. The activity suggests making them out of paper, but I would use cardstock and laminate for future uses. You can make this a center activity with some school calendar magnets, an old cookie sheet, and a Happy Map. I would sand and spray paint the cookie sheet with a satin finish to make it slick, so students can model “drag-and-drop” by sliding the magnetic pieces with their index fingers. Write a set of simple instructions, and you will have a great Computer Science center activity. Plus, you finally have a reason to replace/repurpose those “seasoned” cookie sheets. Also, I would make a large version for the board. If your dry erase board is magnetic, attach magnets to the back of the manipulatives {Hey, I can recycle all those old school calendar magnets!}. If yours is a fake dry erase board like mine, you can make an old-school felt board with an anchor chart easel, a big piece of felt (or some material that Velcro loves), and Velcro. However, you will not be able to properly model “drag-and-drop” with this manipulative. Students will have to imagine it.
    • Stevie and the Big Project – If you have not taught your little kiddos about “frustration” and “persistence”, then I would read/share this e-book with them BEFORE you start debugging activities. You can keep it simple by just reading it to your class, or you can make it a project for you older students to create an e-book with voice overs and more. Of course, you can print it on cardstock, laminate, and make a book to add to your CS book library for K – 2nd grade.
  • www.CodeMonkey.com – These lesson plans are also great. They are also scripted, but the teacher has more leeway as how to present the activities.
    • CodeMonkey, Jr.: Lesson 2 Intro to Computing/Coding – This lesson is on page 13. I like Part 2 of this lesson. I found a CS center based on this idea on Pinterest. You need a plastic kids table, colorful tape, some small figures or toys, a couple of strong magnets, and a little bit of strong glue. First, create a checkerboard pattern by sticking the tape to the table. Make sure your lines are straight. Glue a magnet to the bottom of your figure (yes, you finally found a use for those stray toys). After the glue dries, choose a square to put your beginning figure. Attach it to the board by putting a magnet on the underside of the table. Make sure you have the polarity in the right direction for the magnets to attract each other. Place other toys/objects on the table with magnets for your obstacles that students must go around to meet the finish goal. You could also use a checkerboard piece for the start position. If you plan this correctly, you can make 4 stations for 4 students (one per side). Make some reusable grid cards (laminated) for students to map out their adventure by drawing arrows from start to finish using dry erase markers. Make sure you have some clear instructions to make this station work without the teacher. An extension would be to add a journal entry – Explain the steps you would take from start to finish using CoffeeScript.
    • Coding Adventure: Lesson 13 Iterate Mate Part 3 – The Coding Adventure lesson plans are very thorough. The first mention of the actual word “Algorithm” is in Lesson 13 Part 3, but students have already been introduced to algorithms along the way up to Lesson 13.
  • www.CSUnplugged.org – These lesson plans are geared toward the more advanced students that already have a basic knowledge of Computer Science.
    • Searching Algorithms – This activity is based on the game Battleships. It is for ages 9 and up. The activity is very well planned with links to pictures, videos, applications in the real world, and extension activities.
    • Sorting Algorithms – This activity requires a scale to determine the weights of different objects. It is also very well planned. It includes several links to other sorting algorithms, such as bubble sort. There are also links to visualizations of the different sorting methods.

There are many more resources available to explain algorithms to kids on Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest boards, and Computer Science websites. Sometimes, the best explanations are the simplest ones, like the steps involved in opening a soda pop can. You will have to explore the activities and find the right fit for you and your class.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michelle Ward is a PreK – 8th grade Keyboarding/Computer Apps specials teacher at Lake Road Elementary School in Union City, TN that sneaks in Computer Science at every available opportunity. She is a CodeMonkey Ambassador, a member of CSTA, and an advocate for CS4ALL.

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