I was a parent long before I was a teacher. Like most parents, I have an abundance of toys and games that my children have accumulated over the years. Many of them I have resisted purging, some for sentimental reasons, some for practical reasons and others are beyond reason. My interest in anything STEM related for my kids developed when they were quite young long before my decision to be an educator and many have found their way into my classroom.
Once I decided to return to school to become a teacher and started to collect resources for my classroom, I turned first to the box of misfit toys outgrown by my two almost grown boys. The piles of games, Lego, puzzles and hot wheels cars that once were scattered on their bedroom floors have now found a new life in the classroom of a new computer science teacher.
It has been my experience when teaching new concepts to learners, whether it’s computer science related or not, making a connection to something they are already comfortable and familiar with makes a smoother transition while adding an element of play makes it memorable. What could be better? Some games like Mastermind can be used “as-is”. By playing the games as designed there are a number of computer science topics that can be intertwined; from cybersecurity, cryptography and algorithm discussion to implementing the game itself in any number of different languages. While games like bingo can be adapted for almost any purpose, I have found success using it when teaching binary numbers. Call a number in base 10, then students convert to binary to cross it off on their card. Or using an etch-a-sketch or magic 8-ball as examples for coding assignments.
Some computer science topics can be challenging to teach. My go to activity for conditional statements is a game of “Simon Says”, and recently combined it with an Inequalities unit I was teaching in my grade nine math class. Although technically not a toy, it does spark the childhood memories I was looking for in this activity. In this version of the game students evaluated a conditional that contained an inequality that was specific to them and based on the outcome one of two actions had to be performed. For example, IF your number of siblings > 2 THEN sit down ELSE clap three times. This gives students the understanding that a different process can occur based on a decision or condition.
The tangram puzzle has been useful in my math class teaching area of compound shapes. In computer science, we use the tangram as practice using the shape functions in Processing. Students gain experience with the shape, color and rotation functions while creating their own designs. Creating an image with the shapes of the tangram then translating it into code has an immediate and lasting impact on students. For an added cultural impact, as an introduction will play “The Sage’s Journey”, the ancient Chinese legend of how the tangram was created. A Sage's Journey: The Story of Tangrams - YouTube). A selection of tangram images can be found here: tangram gallery - Mrs. Latimer (weebly.com)
My all-time favorite has got to be Lego. I have loved Lego since I was a kid therefore transitioning it to the classroom seemed natural. I use this early in the course to teach students about sequence and detail of instruction. My line is “computers will only do what you tell them to do, in the order you tell them to do it.” In this activity, first introduced to me during my first practicum as a teacher candidate, students are first grouped into pairs. One of the students (student 1) has a pile of Lego, the other (student 2) has a picture of what they need to build. Without showing student 1 the picture, student 2 must give brick by brick instruction in order to complete the project. The instructions need to be specific and in the right sequence in order to work. Sound familiar?
Toys in the classroom are neither new or unusual when describing an early years or even middle years scenario. However, in a secondary classroom it may be a little less common. (Das, n.d) “Using toys and day to day objects help in illustrating complex concepts of science and technology lessons more simple and tangible”. Computer science can be challenging for some students to grasp; when we remove the scary unknown with something fun and familiar we can generate enthusiasm rather than apprehension.
Toys are often overlooked as education resources but one walk through the aisle of a toy store or salvaged from the bottom of the toybox these items can find new life and spark inspiration for the educators and imagination of students forever more.
Computer Science, ICT and Mathematics Teacher
St. Paul’s High School
Winnipeg MB Canada