Can young children develop early computational thinking?

Young boy playing with multiple coloured blocks on a wooden table. Pictured from above. Boy is grabbing the block piled up in front of him

By Carlos González-Sancho

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Young children can master a range of computational thinking concepts and skills at an emergent level, which can help these children be more equipped for their future.
– Computational thinking in early childhood education must rely on tools and approaches that are developmentally appropriate for young learners.
– Early exposure to computational thinking is also important to prevent stereotypes and ensure all young children have equal opportunities to develop their digital literacy.

Digital technology is part of young children’s lives. Many are able to pick up a digital device and use it with ease – more so than many adults around them. But we should ask for much more. Meaningful participation in digital environments also requires being able to manage technology and use it in creative ways. This means developing skills that go beyond knowing how to use any particular digital device, and beyond learning any specific coding language. Instead, we can help children build computational thinking, a more active way of engaging with digital technology. Computational thinking is the process involved in formulating and breaking down problems into small units and in designing instructions that a computer can carry out to solve those.

Computational thinking features in many of the digital literacy frameworks that countries around the world are adopting for their school systems. Its growing recognition as an important skill for the digital age is also reflected in our work, being part of the PISA 2021 mathematical literacy framework and of the PISA 2025 innovative domain of Learning in the Digital World.

But is there a role for early childhood education and care (ECEC) in developing this area of early digital literacy, or should we aim for middle-childhood and adolescence instead? Can young children who are still acquiring basic literacy and numeracy be introduced to computational thinking? And how could ECEC do this in a way that is consistent with the principles of play, curiosity and socialisation that underpin young children’s early learning and development? These are some of the questions explored in our latest Education Working Paper.

What does computational thinking mean for young children?

The basic principles of computational thinking are the same for young children as for older children and adolescents – what varies is the complexity of the problems they can solve and their interactions with digital tools. At an emergent level, children aged 6 and younger can master ideas and habits of mind involved in computational thinking, for example ordering steps in a sequence (algorithms), breaking down a large task (modularity), making decisions based on conditions (control structures), using letter and number symbols for coding (representation), or fixing problems in programmes (debugging).

What tools and approaches work best for integrating computational thinking in early education?

Not all technologies are equally well suited to support the playful, exploratory, and creative activities in which young children thrive. Their developmental needs and abilities call for programming environments specifically designed for them. These should include simple languages with a flexible grammar, as well as open-ended challenges with multiple solutions, so that children can explore and create without being afraid of making mistakes – just like their play. This differs from traditional computer science tasks to be completed under time pressure and requiring a pre-determined correct answer. Further, programming tools should be based on pictures, symbols, and icons – appealing visual elements for young children who cannot yet read independently. In turn, unplugged activities and materials are a strategy to build on young children’s liking of physical and hands-on experiences, as well as to limit screen time.

Providing equal learning opportunities and preventing gender stereotypes

Access to and use of high-quality, open-ended software and technologies is mediated by the socio-economic status of the child’s family. Research shows that early experiences can be pivotal to maintaining interest in technology-related fields at a later age. Hence, positive experiences with computational thinking and computer science from an early age can be particularly important for young girls and groups that are underrepresented in computer science.

More research is needed to generate robust evidence on the impact of early computational thinking education programmes, as well as on the conditions for their potential implementation at scale. This OECD Education Working Paper, with an explicit focus on pre-primary education, is a first step towards identifying both the promising aspects and the limitations of initiatives targeting this dimension of early digital literacy. For young children growing up in the digital era, acquiring a rich set of digital literacy skills will be essential for engaging in productive and safe uses of digital technology later in life. Building such competences requires approaches adapted to their age and ECEC experiences.

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* This work is part of the ongoing OECD project ECEC in a Digital World, which explores ways in which ECEC can respond to digitalisation by harnessing opportunities to promote young children’s learning, development, and well-being in digital age, and by managing the risks that digital environments present to young children.

Photo: Shutterstock/ Panumas Yanuthai