5 Screen-free and unplugged coding activities

Computer coding skills are hugely in demand and children as young as five are learning to code as part of the curriculum. Thinking about your child’s future, the technology sector is booming, attracting 28bn in investment since 2011.

However, finding skilled candidates to fill jobs in the tech sector has proved difficult. High level STEM vacancies are twice as like to be left unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants with desirable skills.

It’s clear that engaging young children with STEM learning, in particular, computer science, will be beneficial to their future endeavours.

So, we know that computer coding is an incredibly useful skillset for your child to have – but how do we introduce this complex concept to younger children?

Doing so poses a problem for parents. How can you balance keeping your child active, healthy and minimize their time in front of a screen, while giving them the best opportunities for the future?

Empower your child to take on the world with our favourite ‘unplugged’ coding activities. These activities aim to build a foundation for future learning in computer science by combining both creativity and logical thinking skills.

The basics – what is coding or computer programming?

In the most basic terms, a code is a set of instructions that a computer carries out. These instructions are known as a programming language. There are lots of different computer programming languages, from PHP to Python.

Each is suitable for different tasks. For example, some are used for app building while others style the layout of a website. Essentially, they all give a computer instructions in a format they can read.

Introducing binary

Our computers don’t read in the same way that we do. Everything that we input into a computer is translated into the binary alphabet, also known as ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). This represents each letter, both lower and upper case as sets of numbers containing only 1’s and 0’s.

ASCII Binary Alphabet

Image: Little Bins for Little Hands

When we write code, the computer translates our input into binary so that a computer processor can execute it. This is the basis for everything we do with a computer – from recording music to playing games or writing documents.

An understanding of binary lays the foundations for learning computer programming and is a great starting point for anyone new to coding.

Activity 1 – Binary cards

So, you thought you knew how to count? Well, here is a new way to do it!

This is one of our favourite activities for introducing the binary system to anyone who can count. Even if you’re an adult who has struggled with understanding the system, this introduction can help you visualise how numbers are translated into binary values and visa-versa.

You need a set of cards with 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16 dots. Visit CS Unplugged for printable cards. There’s also more in-depth instructions and additional activities to try out!

CS Unplugged

Instructions

Step 1: Cut out the cards on your sheet and lay them out with the 16-dot card on the left. Make sure the cards are placed in exactly the same order.

Step 2: Now flip the cards so exactly 5 dots show—keep your cards in the same order!

binary cards

So the binary number for 5 is 00101 or 101. It’s good practise to remove any unnecessary 0’s from the start of the binary number.

When a binary number card is not showing, it is represented by a zero. When it is showing, it is represented by a one. This is the binary number system.

Here’s another example showing how to work out the number 11 in binary:

binary number cards

So the binary number for 11 is 01011 or 1011.

Step 3: Find out how to get 3, 12, 19. Is there more than one way to get any number?

What is the biggest number you can make? What is the smallest? Is there any number you can’t make between the smallest and biggest numbers?

Activity 2 – Binary bracelets

This activity combines creativity and the very basics of computer science. The visual representation of creating a bracelet or necklace following the ASCII language encourages active learning, which helps us retain information.

If your children are too young to introduce to binary and coding, this activity is also great for pattern recognition or just to get creative!

You’ll need:

Step 1: write your name and then write down the ASCII Binary codes for each letter.

Step 2: pick one colour (or shape) bead for 0’s and one colour (or shape) for 1’s.

Step 3: tie a knot in the end of the string so beads don’t fall off.

Step 4: add beads in the binary code pattern you have written down for your name.

Step 5: tie off ends to finish the bracelet and wear!

Note: Those with longer names might want to consider doing their initials, or making a binary necklace!

Activity 3 – Create your own code

One big, underlying concept of coding is abstract thinking and using symbols to represent something an action or instruction. This activity is great fun and helps children to grasp this idea.

It’s really straightforward. First, download a code creator printable sheet. Assign each letter or number an alternative value; you can use Morse Code, binary or just your own symbols. Make the code as easy or difficult to decipher as you like.

Once you’ve created your code, it’s time for some fun. Leave each other secret messages, or hide a present and leave directions in your code and send your friends or family on a treasure hunt.

Activity 4 – building bricks  and coding: putting language into action

Building bricks are a versatile tool for STEM learning. From mathematical concepts to engineering, there are hundreds of building brick activities for all ages to encourage participation in science and technology subjects.

One of the basic of coding is understanding the creating a set of instructions and following them to solve a problem. Grab a tub of building bricks and see if you can make a robot from the pieces. Once you have your robot, you can make a coding game for it.

Create obstacles for your bot to navigate and design your own movement cards to try and anticipate how to navigate the course. When you’ve drawn them, lay them out around the course to see your code and see test whether your directions were correct.

If you get it wrong, try again. One of the most important aspects of coding is identifying issues and identifying how to resolve them.

Collect bricks along the way and see how tall you can make your robot! Devise codes for each other to follow and test, devise new challenges and try again.

Activity 5 – Make a mouse maze

The Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set is great for bringing together your little one’s engineering and programming skills in one swoop.

This kit has been specifically designed to engage and inspire primary children in science, technology, engineering and maths lessons and develop enthusiasm from a young age.

You can use the maze included with the set to build your own course, or create your own maze using anything you can lay your hands on – cereal boxes, polystyrene packaging – think Blue Peter circa 1990!

You can then help your robot mouse navigate through a maze to their beloved cheese with only coding commands to guide them. Even the youngest of aspiring programmers can put coding into action with this fun set-up.