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ECRC student playing with children and the Code-A-Pillar toy.

Published November 13, 2018

Teaching preschoolers coding and computational thinking skills

Innovative toy an effective tool for learning in classrooms and at home

How can caterpillars help preschoolers develop coding skills and computational thinking? Fisher-Price and the Fisher-Price Endowed Early Childhood Research Center (ECRC) in the Graduate School of Education are working together to answer this question in preschool classrooms and children’s homes.

Product developers at Fisher-Price have created “Think & Learn Code-a-pillar” (“Code-a-pillar” for short), a toy that is shaped like a caterpillar but each of the body segments are interchangeable pieces programmed to direct the caterpillar to move and/or behave in multiple ways. The ECRC is implementing the toy with a companion curriculum in its classrooms and with parents at home to test its effectiveness. With teachers’ guidance, the 3- to 4-year-old age group are learning “sequencing,” “looping,” “cause and effect” and other basic coding concepts and computational thinking skills.

“What makes Code-a-pillar so special for preschoolers is that it takes a complicated concept like coding, frames it in a way that the children can understand, and is perfectly developmentally appropriate for them,” said Lauren Celenza, senior child testing researcher at the Fisher-Price Play Lab, a GSE alumna (EdM ’11, Early Childhood/Childhood Education) and a doctoral student in early childhood education.

There are 10 codes for the interchangeable body parts, including directional (e.g., forward, right, left) and behavioral codes such as making silly sounds, making snoring sounds and playing upbeat music. Each child creates a Code-a-pillar body with up to 15 pieces (codes can be used multiple times). The children can predict how the toy will move and behave based on the body part order, as well as plan the movements to achieve goals (e.g., reaching a particular destination) or solve problems (e.g., getting around an obstacle).

“At the very core of coding, is planning and sequencing,” said Celenza. “Those are the skills that Code-a-pillar helps teach preschoolers as they play with the toy. It helps form the building blocks and thinking skills for coding that they’ll need as they grow up in this constantly evolving world of technology.”

A key to the learning associated with the Code-a-pillar is the Think & Learn Curriculum that accompanies the toy, which includes a manual for parents. ECRC teachers interpret and implement the 12-week curriculum as they teach the children the basic coding skills and computational thinking. Parents use the manual at home each week, along with a Code-a-pillar provided by Fisher-Price, to reinforce these concepts and foster a home-school connection for students and families.

Code-a-pillar has been well received by teachers and students. “Having this tactile way of delving into math and science has been a real treat for the preschoolers,” said Stanley Diih, an ECRC teacher, a GSE alumnus (EdM ’16, Early Childhood/Childhood Education) and a doctoral student in educational administration. “I think kids learn best when they are excited about learning, and they have been thrilled about playing with Code-a-pillar. Beyond being a toy the kids love, it has been a great teaching tool as well.”

Parents are equally impressed. “Our whole family has really enjoyed the Code-a-pillar project,” said Christen Mueller, parent of 4-year-old Everett. “I feel that it has been a good outlet for him to expand his own creativity, experiment with cause-and-effect and explore multiple ways to achieve a goal through trial-and-error. I have seen his confidence build as he masters some of the basics, and watched his excitement as he discovers new ways to play.”  

Shannon Hoffman, parent of 3-year-old Colette, said “It’s amazing to see how her observation skills have increased and her directional awareness. It has also reinforced colors and counting. Overall, it has been an enjoyable new learning experience with our daughter outside of the repetitive and traditional ABCs, 123s and imaginary play.”

“We’re excited about the learning potential of Code-a-pillar,” said X. Christine Wang, ECRC director and an associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction. “This is the first toy of its kind for preschoolers to learn coding skills and computational thinking. It also lends itself well to learning the critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity skills (4Cs) that are essential for the future workforce, as well as everyday life situations.”

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