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Developing fundamental programming concepts and computational thinking with ScratchJr in preschool education: A case study

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In recent years, the teaching of programming and development of fundamental programming concepts at the preschool age has attracted the interest of the educational and scientific community. International research has highlighted that teaching programming to young children has a crucial influence on the development of their cognitive functions. There are currently plenty of available programming environments suited for preschoolers. Researchers are adapting their views concerning the age threshold at which young children can effectively get involved with programming. A new programming environment, which was designed to help preschoolers familiarise with basic programming concepts, in a developmentally appropriate manner, is ScratchJr. This study performs a brief introduction to the characteristics of ScratchJr as well as a presentation of the results of a small-scale pilot study for the evaluation of ScratchJr as means of teaching basic programming concepts in the preschool classroom.
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nt. J. Mobile Learning and Organisation, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2016 187
Copyright © 2016 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Developing fundamental programming concepts and
computational thinking with ScratchJr in preschool
education: a case study
Stamatios Papadakis*, Michail Kalogiannakis
and Nicholas Zaranis
Department of Preschool Education,
Faculty of Education,
University of Crete,
Crete, Greece
Email: stpapadakis@gmail.com
Email: mkalogian@edc.uoc.gr
Email: nzaranis@edc.uoc.gr
*Corresponding author
Abstract: In recent years, the teaching of programming and development of
fundamental programming concepts at the preschool age has attracted the
interest of the educational and scientific community. International research has
highlighted that teaching programming to young children has a crucial
influence on the development of their cognitive functions. There are currently
plenty of available programming environments suited for preschoolers.
Researchers are adapting their views concerning the age threshold at
which young children can effectively get involved with programming. A
new programming environment, which was designed to help preschoolers
familiarise with basic programming concepts, in a developmentally appropriate
manner, is ScratchJr. This study performs a brief introduction to the
characteristics of ScratchJr as well as a presentation of the results of a small-
scale pilot study for the evaluation of ScratchJr as means of teaching basic
programming concepts in the preschool classroom.
Keywords: ScratchJr; preschool education; basic programming concepts;
computational thinking.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Papadakis, S., Kalogiannakis,
M. and Zaranis, N. (2016) ‘Developing fundamental programming concepts
and computational thinking with ScratchJr in preschool education: a case
study’, Int. J. Mobile Learning and Organisation, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp.187–202.
Biographical notes: Stamatios Papadakis is a graduate of the Economics and
Business (AUEB) University, Athens, Greece, Department of Information. He
received a MSc in Education from the University of the Aegean, Greece, and a
PhD from the University of Crete, School of Education. He has been working
for a series of years as an ICT teacher in public sector Secondary Education.
He has published many articles in journals and has presented several papers in
conferences. His research interests include ICT in education, mobile learning,
novice programming environments and teaching of programming in primary
and secondary education.
188 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
Michail Kalogiannakis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Preschool Education at the University of Crete and Associate Tutor at School
of Humanities at the Hellenic Open University. He has graduated from the
Physics Department of the University of Crete and continued his post-graduate
studies at the University Paris 7-Denis Diderot (D.E.A. in Didactic of Physics),
University Paris 5-René Descartes-Sorbonne (D.E.A. in Science Education)
and received his PhD degree at the University Paris 5-René Descartes-
Sorbonne (PhD in Science Education). His research interests include science
education in the early childhood, science teaching and learning, e-learning, the
use of ICT in education, distant and adult education. He has published many
articles in international conferences and journals and has served on the program
committees of numerous international conferences.
Nicholas Zaranis graduated from the Department of Electrical and Computer
Engineering of the NTUA. He took the MSc in ICT from the University of
Essex. Also, he received his Master of Science and his PhD from the
University of Athens. He has worked for a series of years in the private sector
as Electrical Engineer in Hewlett Packard Hellas and in public sector as teacher
in Secondary Education. He is currently Associate Professor in the Department
of Preschool Education at the University of Crete. His research interests
include ICT in education, educational software, and teaching of Mathematics
using ICT.
1 Introduction
Even today, school education sometimes seems trapped in following the path of the 19th-
century learning logic (teaching and examination). This is opposed to the modern ‘road
to knowledge’, which concentrates on building foundations for the gradual conquest of
abstract concepts as means of leading children to ‘learn how to learn’. Apart from that,
the current generation of ‘digital natives’ is growing in a digitised world in which
technology is evolving rapidly, creating new fields of study, new forms of employment,
requiring new skills and abilities (Yang et al., 2015). Despite the fact of the initial
concern about the use of technology in the education of young children (Cordes and
Miller, 2000), proof of the benefits of using developmentally appropriate interactive
technology has been well documented (Couse and Chen, 2010). In recent years, the rapid
development of technology has contributed to the development of new educational tools
(Yin and Fitzgerald, 2015). Additionally, the vast dissemination of various forms of ICT
(Information and Communications Technologies) has lead students to the gradual
conquest of functional knowledge that facilitates the development of higher levels of
practical skills useful in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math)
that is applicable to real-life contexts. As Wing states, this knowledge, referred to as
computational thinking, builds on the power and limits of computing processes, giving
students the necessary methodology and models to solve problems and design systems.
Today, computational thinking is such a fundamental skill for everyone that we should
add it to every child’s analytical ability along with reading, writing, and arithmetic
(Wing, 2006).
Developing fundamental programmin
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concepts 189
In this context, many educational institutions and researchers worldwide have created
numerous tools and programming environments (Chookaew et al., 2015), which even
target at preschool age children. The reason for this is that numerous studies have
confirmed the benefits generated by the teaching of programming concepts in the
development of basic cognitive skills, which are associated, for example, with the
mathematical ability and the development of logical thinking in children of preschool and
early primary school age (Kazakoff and Bers, 2012; Kazakoff et al., 2013; Grover and
Pea, 2013; Strawhacker et al., 2015b). This implementation can be more efficient when it
is combined with the creation of technological tools that take advantage of powerful
modern mobile devices (Yin and Fitzgerald, 2015).
Programming is traditionally associated with the development of the above-
mentioned skills, as it requires the use of structured thinking (Portelance, 2015).
Programming environments such as ‘Tynker’ (https://www.tynker.com/), ‘Hopscotch’
(http://www.gethopscotch.com/) and the ‘Move the Turtle’ (http://movetheturtle.com/)
aspire to introduce children to programming in a manner, which is compatible with their
level of cognitive development. At the same time, international organisations such as
Code.org (http://code.org/) and Code Academy (http://www.codecademy.com/) are
planning the learning of basic programming principles through interactive online courses
that even include preschoolers (Portelance and Bers, 2015). Since 2013, the UK is the
first country in the world to mandate computer programming in primary and secondary
schools (Department for Education, 2013).
ScratchJr is a new programming environment, which provides a platform for the
development of problem-solving skills in a playful way and can be ideal for the
development of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills in preschool education. The
creators of ScratchJr aim exactly to fill the gap created by the lack of a developmentally
appropriate teaching and development platform. With ScratchJr young children learn
fundamental programming principles and concepts while at the same time create their
animated stories and games in a developmentally correct and playful way.
The present study deals with the importance of the development of fundamental
programming concepts in preschool education and the necessity of creating the
programming environment ScratchJr. It also presents a preliminary, small-scale pilot
study indicating that the use of ScratchJr contributes significantly to the development of
fundamental programming concepts and computational thinking in preschool education.
2 The importance of developing fundamental programming concepts and
computational thinking
As early as 2006, in his book titled ‘The World is Flat’, Thomas Friedman stated that the
economy needs ‘Versatilists’, namely people who are specialised not only in a
professional field but also in Informatics. According to the same author, Computer
Science is the connective tissue that enables ‘Versatilists’ to bridge their professional
expertise with technological innovation (Seehorn et al., 2011).
Prior to this author, other researchers had also reported the necessity of understanding
Computer Science, using the term computational thinking (CT). Why is CT so
important? It is important because it allows one to solve problems, to design systems, and
understand the potential and limitations of human intelligence and of machines. It is a
skill that powers the modern world and, therefore, all students should possess and
190 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
develop skills in this area (UNESCO, 2005; Berry, 2013). CT is a skill today’s students
need to be taught, in order to adequately prepare for the workplace but also to be able to
participate effectively in the modern digital world. CT is defined as a problem-solving
process. It includes the ability to use knowledge for the exploitation of various tools of
information technology, the steps-actions needed to solve a problem and logical
organisation and data analysis (UNESCO, 2005; Pougatchev, 2007). In education, CT as
a problem-solving methodology can be automated and be used across the spectrum of the
curriculum (Barr and Stephenson, 2011). Following this approach, CT is allowing the
combined use of Computer Science in all disciplines providing the means for analysing
and developing solutions to all problems that can be solved computationally (Seehorn
et al., 2011).
There is a growing recognition by the academic and scientific community that
‘coding is the new literacy’ for preschool education. This position implies the idea that
CT, similar to reading and writing, may facilitate the development of other skills such as
problem-solving and the development of the necessary for our time, 21st-century skills
(Figure 1).
Figure 1 The relationship between coding, computational thinking and digital literacy skills
(see online version for colours)
Source: Google for Education (2015)
The term computational thinking is not new. Seymour Papert first used it to describe not
just the procedures and concepts used for the solution of problems and the design of
computer systems, but also the application of the above in the perception and
comprehension of natural phenomena (Papert, 1996). The term, however, is defined in
depth by Jeannette Wing, which describes computational thinking as a rich set of
analytical methods that effectively involve the human and the machine element in the
solution of various problems (Wing, 2006). These methods include specific tasks such as
programming, testing and debugging, and the use of abstract concepts such as data
representation.
Developing fundamental programmin
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2.1 The importance of development of fundamental programming concepts
and computational thinking in preschool education
In the first years of the introduction of computers in school classes, there was an intense
debate whether the use of technology in preschool and primary education was a suitable
educational development (Clements and Sarama, 2005). However, today the initial
doubts and aphorisms have been eliminated, resulting in the introduction of ICT even as
early as in preschool education. Compared to traditional instruction or information from
textbooks, learning with the use of ICT seems to be a more attractive way of learning that
can trigger the interest and motivation of preschoolers (Hwang and Chang, 2011).
Moreover, even the teaching of programming is now considered acceptable at early
ages. Considering that ‘coding is the new literacy’, the teaching of programming and the
use of corresponding languages and programming environments has gained considerable
popularity in recent years in western countries. The major goal of programming courses
is to help students learn to solve problems with program design rather than merely
memorising the syntax of the programming language and the operations of the
programming tools (Wang et al., 2015). As a result, in the USA, for example, federal
education programs and private initiatives, such as the non-profit organisation Code.org
(www.code.org), have made the teaching of Computer Science and technology literacy
acquisition a priority for young students (Portelance, 2015; Strawhacker et al., 2015a).
As early as September 2014, ICT is out in primary schools of Great Britain. It has
been replaced by a new ‘computing’ curriculum including coding lessons for children as
young as five. Children aged 5–7 need to know the use of simple commands and to
predict the behaviour of simple programs, while children aged 7–11 should be aware of
how to apply repetition, selection and the use of variables (European Schoolnet, 2015).
As characteristically mentioned in the National Curriculum of Great Britain, ‘A high-
quality computing education equips pupils to use Computational Thinking and creativity
to understand and change the world’ (Department for Education, 2013).
Nevertheless, though it may seem strange, teaching programming to children is
nothing new. On the contrary, it has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s, since the most
notable, perhaps, initiatives of MIT professor Seymour Papert (Barseghian, 2013). For
Seymour Papert, who introduced the educational use of the Logo language, coding was
more than a matter of just teaching a subject or another programming language. He
believed that it was a powerful tool for students to develop their cognitive skills. As he
points out: ‘I began to notice that children who had learned to program computers could
use very specific computational models in their personal way of thinking and learning
and therefore to be better prepared for their future academic and professional
development’ (Papert, 1993, p.21).
Additional studies have shown that when children learn through well-target-staged
program building and/or debugging, they are motivated to get actively involved and not
just participate in the processing of an activity. They are led to a better comprehension of
mental objects not only in the programming field but also objects that pertain across the
curriculum (Brennan, 2011; Barseghian, 2013). Even preschoolers can create and study
third party ready-made programs in a way that demonstrates a deep understanding of the
basic programming concepts. Specifically, they can name actions corresponding to
instructions, classify events in a logical order, and even create a simple program to
achieve a hypothetical goal (Brennan, 2011; Barseghian, 2013).
192 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
3 A short introduction to ScratchJr
Various studies have shown that children as young as four years old can understand basic
programming concepts and can create and program simple robotic constructions (Bers
and Horn, 2010). Moreover, studies using the Logo programming language showed that
when the teaching of programming is introduced in a structured way, it can help young
children develop a variety of cognitive skills (Clements, 1999). However, the same
studies reveal the inadequate design of programming environments aimed for use by
young children. The strict syntax of the text-based programming languages such as
Logo can finally discourage young children. Alternatively, graphics programming
environments can potentially simplify the syntax difficulties, but at the same time
frequent use of text in such cases poses an additional challenge for children of this age
(Clements, 1999).
The creation of ScratchJr was based exactly on the lack of a developmentally
appropriate environment for creating digital stories and learning about basic
programming concepts in preschool education. Although there are a plethora of
remarkable programming tools such as Hopscotch, Kodable, Run Marco, Code Studio,
CS-First, Tynker, Daisy the Dinosaur, Cargo-Bot, Hakitzu Elite, Lightbot, Move The
Turtle, they are in their entirety aimed at children aged at least 7 or 8 years old. In
contrast, the plethora of self-proclaimed educational applications (mobile or not) and
individual technologies which are addressed to preschoolers focuses on the development
of basic skills such as letter and number identification, rather than the creation of content
and the development of higher level skills (Zaranis et al., 2013; Papadakis et al., 2016b).
The aim of ScratchJr creators is to give preschoolers a programming environment
whereby young children in a developmentally correct and playful way learn fundamental
programming principles and concepts while creating their animated stories and games.
As one can read in the official website of ScratchJr (www.ScratchJr.org), the creators of
the environment aspire ‘children not only to simply learn to write code but to also encode
their learning’ with its use (ScratchJr.org, 2015a). ScratchJr (Scratch Junior) is an
introductory programming environment that allows young children (5–7 years) to
‘discover’ the basic programming concepts by creating projects in the form of interactive
stories and games. ScratchJr and its accompanied mobile applications for Android and
iOS ecosystems was created jointly by the Developmental Technologies Research Group
and Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group at Tufts University and Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) and the privately funded company Playful Invention.
The template for creating ScratchJr was another research product of the MIT Lifelong
Kindergarten Group, the popular programming environment Scratch (Flannery et al.,
2013). Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu) is a visualised programming environment that
enables students to develop animations or games by just dragging and dropping icons
representing particular programming instructions (Wang et al., 2015). Additionally,
ScratchJr takes advantage of the popularity of mobile devices with young children
(Zaranis et al., 2013; Papadakis et al., 2016a) as it is available both for smart mobile
devices with iOS or Android operating systems and screen sizes up to 7 inches. The
disposal of the personal computer version is envisaged for the forthcoming future. During
ScratchJr design phase, the researchers removed many of the characteristics of Scratch in
order for the environment to be developmentally appropriate for preschoolers (Resnick et
al., 2009). Consequently, at a technical level, ScratchJr has certain limitations compared
to Scratch. One of them, for instance, is the lack of variables. However, the environment
Developing fundamental programmin
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has adopted some ‘advanced’ features of Scratch, such as the use of the ‘broadcast’
block. In summary, ScratchJr, despite being much simpler than Scratch, still includes
several powerful options that allow preschoolers to express themselves creatively.
A graphical programming language that consists of 28 different blocks is the core of
ScratchJr. Users create their projects by connecting blocks at reasonable sequences
enabling the characters that appear on the screen to move, change their appearance and/or
produce sounds. With a user-friendly interface, preschoolers can further customise their
project by adding multiple pages, integrating various characters and/or backgrounds
using application libraries or external sources. Alternatively, they can create their
characters or backgrounds using the embedded paint application: add text, set up their
own sounds, etc. The fact that ScratchJr is addressed to young children does not limit the
ability of preschoolers to include diversification and complexity in the produced projects.
The interface for creating a project with ScratchJr consists of four parts (Figure 2):
A: the command editor or programming area where the user connects programming
blocks to create scripts, instructing the character what to do, etc.
B: the scene or stage in which the characters ‘act’ following orders-instructions.
C: a list of the characters that have been added to the stage.
D: a collection (gallery) ranging from one to four pages, each of which is associated
with a new scene and working environment for the continuation of the project
(ScratchJr.org, 2015b).
Figure 2 A snapshot from ScratchJr environment
When the application starts up, it opens up in an active project condition in which there is
a character (cat) already on stage. The command tiles associated with the character’s
movement are immediately visible and ready to be used (Figure 3).
194 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
Figure 3 ScratchJr interface when starting a new project
In order to create a simple program, the user can simply choose any of the eight motion
blocks in the script area just by tapping, with a drag and drop method. Similar to Scratch,
preschoolers are encouraged to create more complex projects including several blocks, as
blocks are joined easily with each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Syntax errors are
impossible to occur in the ScratchJr environment because blocks are in such a way
designed to allow only the logical connections between them (Figure 4).
Figure 4 An example of a completed project in ScratchJr
Additionally, the designers of ScratchJr changed its vertical orientation to landscape in an
attempt to simulate the writing process when preschoolers create scenarios. They
partially redesigned its interface to become more developmentally appropriate for
Developing fundamental programmin
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concepts 195
children of preschool age (Portelance and Bers, 2015). As it is well known, in early
childhood, fine motor skills and visual motor integration for efficient hand–eye
coordination, essential for mouse or touchpad control, are not highly developed and,
therefore, can hinder the effective use of the software (Dankert et al., 2003). The various
components of the ScratchJr environment are quite large. This facilitates the targeting of
both blocks and buttons when using the mouse cursor either on a computer or with a
fingertip on a tablet. Additionally, all components of ScratchJr are identified by the use
of easily noticeable icons so that preschoolers who lack the ability to read, learn quickly
and easily the functions of the learning environment. Even in contrast with Scratch, the
layout of ScratchJr was redesigned to provide the absolutely necessary tools, without the
use of a complicated menu. In general, all of the environmental features are redesigned to
minimise required mouse moves and/or user’s fine motor challenges.
In terms of programming, ScratchJr offers the following features (Flannery et al.,
2013):
Low Floor – High Ceiling: it is easy for a preschooler to start programming with
ScratchJr. However, at the same time the preschooler is provided with adequate
‘space’ to create projects that vary in complexity, keeping the tool developmentally
appropriate for the mental and age range of the user.
Wide Walls: ScratchJr enables multiple learning ‘paths’ and various forms of
exploration and creativity.
Tinkerability: it is easy for preschoolers to incrementally and gradually create
projects and enhance their knowledge through experimentation with new ideas and
features.
Conviviality: ScratchJr Graphical User Interface (GUI) is considered user-friendly,
improving children’s holistic development, by encouraging investigation and
promoting exploration.
4 Research description
The purpose of this small case study, which also serves as a pilot for a broader research,
was to investigate the effect of using ScratchJr for teaching basic programming concepts
and more generally for the development of computational thinking in preschool
education. Computational thinking in preschool and the first two years of compulsory
primary school education is typically considered as comprising of several key factors that
aid in learning to algorithmically solve problems (Calderon et al., 2015). For this
purpose, a teaching intervention was implemented in which preschoolers used ScratchJr
for the creation of their projects. The ethical considerations and guidelines concerning the
privacy of individuals and other relevant ethical aspects in social research were carefully
taken into account throughout the whole research process. Requirements concerning
information, informed consent, confidentiality and usage of data were carefully met, both
orally and in writing, by informing the preschool staff, children, and guardians of the
purpose of the study and their rights to refrain from participation.
For the evaluation of the level of basic programming concepts knowledge (and also
computational thinking) preschoolers achieved at the end of the teaching intervention,
several aspects of measurements were performed. More precisely preschoolers were
196 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
measured in their ability: (a) to understand a single block, (b) to transform individual
blocks in an integrated operational program, (c) to create a complex project, and (d) to
understand the blocks that make up a project.
The sample of the study consisted of 43 preschool children (22 boys, 21 girls) who
were attending classes in a public and a private kindergarten in the region of Crete,
Greece, during the school year 2014–2015. The data were analysed using IBM SPSS
23.0 Software, and the significance level adopted was 5% (p < 0.05). The Institutional
Review Board (IRB) of the University of Crete reviewed the scientific merit of the
research, the validity of the research strategy and the adherence to the accepted practices
in the respective field of study for human subject research protocols.
The teaching intervention had a duration of 13 hours (Table 1). It was adapted from
the ScratchJr ‘Animated Genres’ curriculum as described by Portelance and Bers (2015)
and the activities included in the book entitled ‘The Official ScratchJr Book’ (Bers and
Resnick, 2015). During the teaching intervention, preschoolers became familiar with the
development environment, learned basic programming concepts (blocks) and created
their projects. Specifically, the first 11 hours were devoted to tutoring by the researchers
and the last two hours on the creation of projects by the children. The duration of each
teaching intervention was hourly, while the frequency of sessions was twice weekly
(or once every 3–4 days).
Table 1 Content of the teaching intervention
Teaching hour Modules Learning objects
1st
An introduction to
ScratchJr
Open the app, make, save a new project, use the
green flag, add a background, add another
character, add a title
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
Animations Make the character move, make the character turn,
hide and seek activities, repeat forever
6th
7th
8th Stories Use your voice, create a character, insert – change
the page
9th
10th Games Make various games (e.g. pick a peach)
11th
12th Project time! Free choice project creation
13th
The teaching strategy adopted a constructivist approach as preschoolers were urged to get
actively involved in their process of learning (Kostelnik et al., 2007). As a result, in all
stages of implementation, the open-ended exploration and the creation of various
activities and projects were encouraged. Preschoolers implemented activities that were
developmentally appropriate for their age such as sorting objects by size, shape, and
colour, the logical completion of a series of actions, etc. (Kazakoff and Bers, 2012)
(Figure 5). For the implementation of the teaching intervention tablets with Android
Lollipop (5.0) mobile Operating System and a screen size of 10.1 inches were used.
Developing fundamental programmin
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Figure 5 A preschooler involved in a constructivist learning activity
There is a diversity of approaches to assess fundamental programming concepts as
researchers worldwide have experimented with a variety of ways to measure the
effectiveness of a development process. One common approach towards understanding
the level of development of fundamental programming concepts is through the project
analysis inspection of a student’s use of a programming environment. Portelance (2015)
states that the typical research approaches for secondary education students or novice
programmers are comprised of the determination of the frequency with which students
use different components of the programming environment in their projects. These
include the use of control flow statements, objects, variables, loops, design patterns such
as user interaction, and the use of concepts that requires a higher level of computational
thinking as the abstraction, encapsulation, and inheritance.
However, the existence of assessments that are developmentally appropriate for
preschoolers is seldom (Portelance, 2015). Those available, in their majority, assess the
degree of development of young children fundamental programming concepts, focus on
their ability to use and prioritise various commands, to recognise and place programming
blocks in the correct order, often with the help of artefacts such as wooden or paper
blocks (Portelance et al., 2015).
Owing to the young age of the sample, the researchers could not follow one of the
typical procedures for the evaluation of projects developed in a programming
environment. For that reason, they adapted and partially redesigned the procedures and
methods that have been applied by Portelance and Bers (2015) as well as by Strawhacker
et al. (2013), which evaluate the degree of development of programming concepts by
preschoolers following different approaches. These researchers have proposed a basic
framework for computational and digital skill evaluation in which the score is inversely
proportional to the number of errors in the code of a program. A student’s correct answer
in a question was marked out of zero, whereas the score of a student increased according
to the number of incorrect answers per question.
Specifically, to evaluate the ability to identify different commands, five different
short stories, each of which included the activity of one or more characters, were
presented to preschoolers by the researchers. The code of each story was not visible.
198 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
Subsequently, children were asked to circle on a page which, ScratchJr blocks, has been
used for the creation of the story (program – project) that they had just watched. In
another identification activity, preschoolers were also asked to assign commands (blocks)
in five different half-baked projects of escalating difficulty (Lin, 2012).
5 Indicative results of the teaching intervention
As already mentioned, the present research is a small-scale preliminary pilot study.
However, early qualitative and quantitative analysis of the data confirmed the ability of
children to learn basic programming concepts even at preschool age. A statistical data
analysis found that preschooler gender does not affect performance in computational and
digital skills as the use of independent samples t-test showed a not statistically significant
result, t(41) = –.37, p > 0.05. Therefore, there was no significant difference between boys
(M = 2.2, SD = 1.09) and girls (M = 2.1, SD = 1.06) performances. Subsequently, an
analysis of Pearson’s correlation coefficient (r) showed that the age of children didn’t
affect their performance in understanding basic programming concepts, r(41) = 0.07,
p > 0.05).
The most used blocks were Motion blocks, with ‘Move Right’ being the most
frequently used block. The results are consistent with the earlier research of Portelance
et al. (2015) which showed that kindergarten students dedicated most of their
programming blocks to moving their characters around the screen. Notably, statistical
analysis revealed there was no significant difference between the ratio of motion
programming blocks between males and females t(41) = –0.17, p > 0.05. Our results
suggest that boys (M = 1.8, SD = 0.90) and girls (M = 1.7, SD = 0.92) perform similarly
to each other in various tasks.
Additionally, the qualitative data analysis showed that preschoolers encountered
more difficulties and correspondingly made more mistakes when the scene involved
more than one character. Most common mistakes were on activities in which the
character was jumping on the stage. For example, whereas the character was using the
block ‘jump’, preschoolers mistakenly thought that the blocks ‘move up’ and ‘move
down’ had been used. Next most common were mistakes where preschoolers confused
the usage of ‘spin left’ block with the ‘spin right’. Those results are in correspondence
with the results of the study of Strawhacker et al. (Forthcoming).
Moreover, findings reveal that ScratchJr enhances student interest by making the
learning experience fun. Similarly, animated scenarios showed high levels of engagement
among students. Specifically, ScratchJr allowed children to engage in deep reflection as
they solved problems and collaborated with their peers, both of which activities enhanced
their learning experience. The findings showed that students enjoyed playing with
ScratchJr and indicated that this programming environment is efficient for the learning of
some programming constructs in early childhood and lower level education. ScratchJr
helped promote collaboration and problem-solving skills as children became involved in
the development process of their projects.
Developing fundamental programmin
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6 Discussion – perspectives
In the 21st century, the demand for the development of computational and digital skills,
as elements of the fundamental literacy, will become increasingly intense. Programming
environments, such as ScratchJr, will appear to support the effort to fulfil this need. The
present study aimed to examine whether the use of ScratchJr through the implementation
of developmentally appropriate activities provides preschoolers with new learning
opportunities for developing computational and digital skills. For the purpose of this
study the activities that were utilised allowed preschoolers to familiarise themselves with
and use computational and creative characteristics of ScratchJr which are appropriate for
their age or developmental stage.
The results showed that ScratchJr is especially attractive to preschoolers due to their
active engagement in game-based problem-solving activities. Preschoolers developed
computational and digital skills (abilities to abstract, compartmentalise and synthesise)
that made solving problems easier and helped them create animations, collages, stories,
and games. They participated with undiminished intrinsic interest and pleasure in the
targeted activities’ actions, which presented an efficient way of increasing enthusiasm for
problem-solving when using the ScratchJr programming environment.
The findings of this study confirm previous research results. It provided evidence that
even preschoolers and kindergartners can learn to code. The teaching of programming,
even as early as in preschool education, provides a unique environment in which
preschoolers, in an enjoyable and meaningful way, explore and indulge in relatively
abstract for their age concepts, such as logical reasoning and problem-solving skills. At
the end of the intervention, the majority of preschoolers were able to observe a project
and to conclude, through reverse logic, in the commands (blocks) they had to use to
reconstruct the respective applications. Additionally, as computational thinking is a type
of analytical thinking that shares many similarities with problem-solving, designing and
evaluating processes, and systematic analysis (Bers, 2010) in preschool education, the
use of ScratchJr has the potential to help children increase sequencing skills and develop
various academic skills such as science process understanding and mathematical concept
development. As a result, ScratchJr could be implemented in early childhood as a
teaching tool, set up in a developmentally appropriate way: by integrating other
disciplines, helping children develop cognitive, conceptual, language and collaborative
skills (Toh et al., 2016). As Bers et al. (2014) state when given age-appropriate
technologies, curriculum, and pedagogies, young children can actively engage in learning
computer programming. Children can then take their first steps into developing
computational thinking.
There are several limitations to this study that should be acknowledged. Owing to the
chosen method of teaching intervention, not all preschoolers did receive the same
training during the study. Many preschoolers were absent from school during the days of
intervention. Even though the researchers made attempts for individualised teaching for
infants who were absent, this form of teaching cannot be considered equivalent to the
learning environment of the classroom. Additionally, the study was conducted in two
different classes and, inevitably, the approach of the teaching staff in promoting
social/behavioural skills differed. Additionally, preschool teachers were encouraged to
contribute to classroom management and took part in ScratchJr activities according to
their familiarity with digital skills; thus, preschoolers experienced the implementation of
the activities differently.
200 S. Papadakis, M. Kalogiannakis and N. Zaranis
Also, the narrow geographical focus is highlighted as one of the research weak
points, as well as the small sample size and short duration of implementation of the
teaching intervention. These shortcomings prevent, to some extent, the generalisation of
the results beyond the cases that have been studied. Additionally, this research does not
answer questions related to the development of computational thinking, such as the
effectiveness of individual (solo) programming compared to pair (peer) programming,
the sustainability of children’s knowledge of basic programming concepts per time unit,
etc. Many of these questions are expected to be answered in the near future during the
implementation of a wider in aspects of sample and geographical focus research.
Moreover, we plan to implement and standardise an ‘instrument’ that measures the
achieved computational thinking and its development in preschool children.
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