Computing at home – how parents can help

We had a parent’s evening last week at our school. Lots of parents showed a real active interest in computing. A number of people asked me how they could help support learning at home, and which apps or websites to use. Here is a quick summary of the tools I use with the children in school. Where possible I like to use apps which are free, however there are some where there is a small charge.

Key Stage One:

Bee-bot
We have a set of Bee-bots in Foundation Stage, so by the time the children get to year one they are familiar with these great little robots. There is an app which mirrors the physical robots and is a good introduction into how computers need algorithms (instructions) to function.
IOS Bee-bot app (free)

Blue-bot
This is an extension to Bee-bot and lets you see the algorithm as a whole. We will shortly have a set of Blue-bots in school. They do the same as Bee-bots, but can be controlled from an iPad via Bluetooth.
IOS Blue-bot app (free)
Android Blue-bot app (free)

A.L.E.X.
Another free app, which build on the skills learned in Bee-bot. A.L.E.X. is also based on controlling a robot, but with this app you can also build and design your own levels.
A.L.E.X IOS app (free)
A.L.E.X. Android app (free)

Scratch Jr
ScratchJr is a fantastic entry point for children to explore more open ended programming. It introduces characters, background, more movements, repeat loops and basic if/then routines and offers children the opportunity to experiment and play. There are lots of great ideas for projects on the ScratchJr website.
Scratch Jr IOS app (free)
Scratch Jr Android app (free)

Key Stage Two:

Scratch
The logical next step from ScratchJr, Scratch is a brilliant platform for children to broaden their skills, and to become part of a wider community, sharing their own ideas and borrowing from others. It is a block based platform which all children in Key Stage two will use at Lowerplace. Please see this post for instructions on how to register a Scratch account and why it is a great project to be involved in.

Scratch is web based and needs to be run on a PC or Mac with flash player installed.

Lightbot
Available online, an IOS app or on Android, this is a great too for developing logical thinking and introducing processes into programming. Lightbot also shows that there can be more than one solution to a problem and that some are more efficient than others. There is a free version with a limited number of levels and then paid versions for more levels and challenges.

Lightbot is part of Microsoft’s Hour of Code project, have a look at their website for lots of other great games and activities.
Lightbot free (IOS)
Lightbot full version (IOS) £2.99
Lightbot free (Android)
Lightbot full version (Android) – £2.33

CargoBot
Another app to develop logic and reasoning, but more challenging than Lightbot. The aim is to move pallets around using a crane which you program with loops and repeats. Make sure you start with the easiest levels!
Cargobot IOS (free)
Cargobot Android (free)
Erase All Kittens
This is great fun. There is a free demo version, or for £4 you can buy the full version. Erase All Kittens is a good way of progressing from block based tools such as Scratch to coding using characters, in this case with HTML. It’s a great activity to do with your child, you’ll be surprised what you can learn too.

Swift Playgrounds
This is a new app which has been developed by Apple for iPads. It is based on the Swift programming language which is used to develop many populart iPad apps. It’s not one I have much experience of yet, but I will be introducing it to children in Key Stage two next term.

Physical Computing

In addition to all these great apps and online tools, you can also experience physical computing at home for a reasonably modest outlay.

Codebug
Starting from about £10, codebugs are great little devices which you can program from a computer using a Scratch like interface. It has a set of LED lights which you can control from your computer as well as input and output ports for connecting peripheral devices.

BBC Microbit
Again starting from about £10 the Microbit is similar to the Codebug, but with more resources online.

Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a fully functioning computer which fits in the palm of your hand. you can buy one with a Linux operating system for about £45. Once you have connected a monitor, keyboard and mouse you can do pretty much anything you can do on a £1000+ PC or laptop. There are masses of online resources and accessories which you can add to Raspberry Pis such as cameras, sensors and motors – the possibilities are endless.

Crumble Kit
The Crumble is another cheap microcomputer which can perform a variety of functions. The kit comes with the main motherboard, an LED light, a power supply, a servo motor and an ultrasonic sensor. It also has all the wires and connectors you need for basic projects. Once you get familiar with it, you can combine elements, so you could make the light illuminate when the ultrasonic sensor is triggered. This is also programmed through a simple Scratch type interface.

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Computing at home – how parents can help

The advent calendar of iPad education apps day 9 – Lightbot

With the #hourofcode upon us, this is an apt time to introduce Lightbot, a coding app which I first became aware of through the #hourofcode a couple of years ago. Lightbot is available as an app and is also online at http://hourofcode…

The challenge is simple: navigate the robot, or lightbot around a grid, lighting up yellow squares as you go. The commands available are also simple – forwards, turn clockwise, turn anti clockwise, jump and light. Initially the challenges only require you to use one programming window, so the emphasis is on sequencing, however once you proceed through the first few levels, procedures are introduced. These are required because the algorithms needed to solve the levels are longer than the space in the in the main window.

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Through this, children (and adults) learn sequencing and that repeating certain commands is a more efficient way of coding. It’s also great for introducing debugging – you will fail more than you succeed, but every time you do fail you learn something new, which is exactly the same as in coding.

There is a free version, which has comfortably enough levels and challenge to use up to year 6 and probably beyond, and if you master that the paid version brings more levels and difficulty.

If you are a not a specialist computing teacher this is a great app to introduce some fundamental principals of coding and encourage computational thinking without having to create actual code.

The advent calendar of iPad education apps day 9 – Lightbot

Block or text? Managing the transition to year 7

I took part in an interesting #CASChat (every Wednesday 8-9pm) last week which focussed on the transition between year 6 and year 7 for computing. One of the questions, by Andy Colley (@MrAColley) asked if text coding should be introduced at KS2 and whether block based programming should be dropped at KS3. As a primary specialist I will focus primarily on the first part of the question. I will start with some context, to explain where I expect children to be at year 6.

In my current role I teach across the age range, right from EYFS to year 6. Typically, I will introduce the concept of instructions to EYFS, using physical devices such as bee-bots which then progresses to the bee-bot app. My focus is very much around securing computational language at this stage and encouraging children to experiment to find solutions to problems.

In KS1 I consolidate understanding of bee-bot by introducing more complexity and encouraging children to deconstruct solutions to levels. I also introduce block based programming using the excellent Scratch Jr. My aim is that by the end of KS1 all children can confidently program an animation involving multiple characters, repeats and sensing blocks.

When children reach KS2 I introduce them to ‘full’ Scratch at the earliest opportunity, so that by the end of year 6 they are confident ‘Scratchers’ and can design, build and test their own projects. This is the cornerstone of the KS2 curriculum I teach, but by no means the be all and end all.

I am a firm believer that children should be exposed to a wide variety of coding experiences to broaden their problem solving skills – apps like Lightbot and Bee-Bot are great for this. With this in mind, I do introduce text based programming in year 6, and depending on the cohort, sometimes in year 5. My reasons for this are:

– Scratch is great for problem solving, but does not help children understand what is happening under the hood
– Text based programming teaches children the importance of accuracy in programming. The earlier this is introduced the better
– It promotes good keyboard skills (although a lack of these can inhibit progress)

I start by using a bridge between block based and text based programming. There are a number of great free resources for this, each with a slightly different focus. Here are some ideas (all free) for managing the transition:

Hour of code – a Microsoft sponsored site which guides children through block based projects. However, unlike Scratch, you get to see the code behind the blocks
Barclays code playground – a fun site where you can change parameters to change the way the objects in the site behave or appear
E.A.K. (Eraseallkittens.com) – this is a brilliant site which guides children through game levels which they complete through coding. It offers more freedom than hour of code and Barclays code playground, and does a really good job of making debugging easy and accessible. As a bonus, the kitten theme really appeals to girls whilst not turning off the boys.
SonicPi – another amazing resource, which uses coding to create live music. The great thing about Sonic Pi is that you can either start from scratch (pardon the pun) or edit existing projects. The great benefit is the live aspect, meaning children instantly see results as code is changed.
Mozilla x-ray goggles – shows you the css and html code behind websites, enabling you to edit text and pictures to create your own version of a website.

All of these sites demonstrate that there is actual code behind everything they see on a screen, with the first three maintaining the link with block based programming to smooth over the transition.

Using these means that when you move on to something like Python, children are already familiar with writing lines of code. This demystifies the process and prepares them for more complex concepts, and hopefully helps ease the transition between years 6 and 7.

Block or text? Managing the transition to year 7