Category: Before Class
Computer Programming in Primary School
by Neil Rickus
Computer programming no longer needs to be undertaken while sat in front of a machine on a desk.
Through using buzzers, motors, lights, buttons and a range of electronic components, pupils’ knowledge of
computational thinking and programming can be developed in an engaging manner. In particular,
producing physical computing projects can help motivate all pupils in lessons and allow for the creation of
work linked to other areas of the curriculum.
What computer programming devices are there?
Outlined below are a number of devices often found in primary (elementary) schools, although the
equipment available in individual classrooms varies significantly. The initial three devices are based around
a micro-controller and consist of a circuit board with LEDs. Additional components can easily be connected
using crocodile clips and wires, with instructions entered using a block-based programming environment,
rather than typing in lines of code.
The micro:bit was given to every 12 year old pupil in the UK last year and is also popular in the primary
school classroom. The micro:bit Foundation is now working with teachers worldwide to ensure the device
reaches a wider audience. Projects typically produced by primary aged pupils include scrolling name
badges, step counters and table football games.
The Crumble is an extremely accessible device for primary pupils and it works in conjunction with a
programming environment allowing code to be downloaded to the device in a single click. Crumbs allow
additional components to be added to the board without having to worry about resistors or lose
connections. Moveable robots can easily be created through the addition of motors and proximity sensors,
which provides an excellent link to the DT curriculum.
The CodeBug provides a good introductory physical computing device and is often used to make wearable
technology, which could include badges or decorations within clothing. The CodeBug has a holder for a
watch (CR2032) battery, rather than using bulky AA / AAA batteries, which simplifies the process of using
the device away from the machine.
This robotic ball can be used to sequence instructions and react to events, or even used as a gaming device
to take part in a range of challenges. Within primary schools, pupils can create an assault course or maze,
which could be linked to another area of the curriculum and attempt to navigate Sphero successfully using
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has sold over 12 million units of this increasingly popular computer, which is
now finding its way into the primary classroom. Physical computing devices can be connected directly to
the GPIO interface on the machine’s surface, or add on boards slotted on top, which have electronic
components built in. For example, the Pibrella board contains three LEDs, arranged as traffic lights, a
button, buzzer and connectors for motors.
What are barriers to using computer programming devices in the classroom?
Lack of money – devices could be bought second hand, or the cost shared with local schools. Alternatively,
devices could be borrowed from a local secondary (high) school or University.
Lack of time – links could be made with other areas of the curriculum, or devices used as part of after
school / lunch time clubs
Lack of expertise – more confident pupils could be trained up to assist in lessons, or sessions could initially
be taught in conjunction with more experienced colleagues
Neil Rickus is a senior lecturer in Computing Education, primary school teacher and independent trainer /
consultant. He is on Twitter @computingchamps