Using Robots to Teach Young Elementary Students to Code

How to get your youngest learners engaged in computer science.

September 28, 2015
Margaret A Powers
Director of STEAM Innovation
The Agnes Irwin School
Rosemont, PA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Computer science is getting a lot of press recently for its value in teaching computational thinking and increasing problem-solving skills. The logic involved in coding engages students’ curiosity and gets them excited to learn, so it's a great activity to engage our youngest students, even before they're reading!

At my school, we've been teaching coding to our lower-elementary students for the past few years, and have incorporated robots from Wonder Workshop into the activities. The students in Pre-K through 2nd grade love it when I bring the robots to class. Their enthusiasm is palpable, and the Pre-K students show a particular attachment to our robots, Dash and Dot. I’m constantly working to iterate and improve it. In fact this year will look pretty different from last year as I implement changes in response to what I learned last year. Additionally, now that we have been doing this for three years, the students are more knowledgeable and experienced so I need to adapt the program to respond to that (exciting!) change. Here's what has worked for us.


Goal: Expose students to tools and concepts relating to computer science. This involves discovery-based play using the Wonder Workshop robots (Dash and Dot) and apps. Students explore the reactions that happen to the robots when they press different buttons on the Go & Path apps. They eventually connect different blocks of code, using the Blockly app. It was amazing to see the personification of these robots in the students’ eyes and their immediate care for both Dash and Dot. They greet the robots and make sure to say "goodbye" when our time is up, and many of them give the robots gentle pats and talk to them. I think the design of the robots and their friendly voices help make them very accessible and intriguing to the students. If you don’t have access to robots, you can easily do some introductory coding with young students by using students or cups as the robots, with students writing step-by-step instructions, or code, for what they should do.
Tools: Wonder Workshop apps and robots or unplugged activities


Goal: Encourage students to explore robotics and coding through play while also teaching specific concepts like sequence, conditions, and debugging using Kodable. This work also reinforces a number of math skills like counting and number recognition. Give students an opportunity to create and tell stories using Blockly code and the Wonder Workshop robots.
Tools: Kodable and Wonder Workshop apps and robots

1st Grade

Goal: Introduce digital storytelling using code, incorporating the visible moves of the Wonder Workshop robots and adding in on-screen animations using the ScratchJr app. Give students an opportunity to learn through experimentation, play, and storytelling with ScratchJr. Our motto has become “Try, try again!” because each piece of this work requires a lot of practice, failure, and re-dos. Kids also learn about loops and functions, practicing pattern recognition, comparing groups, answering "how many?" and solving complex problems using the Kodable app.
Tools: Kodable Class, ScratchJr, and Wonder Workshop apps and robots

2nd Grade

Goal: Discovery and play continue to be themes in second grade, where students begin to add more complexity to the stories and games they create in ScratchJr by moving them to the Hopscotch app. This allows students to have access to a much larger library of code blocks and a community where they can share their creations. Student learn about variables, events, parallelism, remixing, and other valuable computer science concepts. In addition to the Wonder Workshop robots, students have a chance to use Sphero as an additional tangible tool to explore how programming can affect the physical world.
Tools: ScratchJr, Hopscotch, Wonder Workshop apps and robots, and the Sphero app and robot

3rd Grade and Beyond

After 2nd grade, our students continue to use many of the tools they were exposed to in the early grades and also dive into programs available on and Scratch, creating more complex coding projects. During specific times of the year, like the Hour of Code, I sometimes introduce additional tools like the games on to demonstrate to younger students that there are many different code languages and ways of using code to create projects. We also have tools like Kano and Robot Turtles to offer students tangible ways of exploring computer science concepts and empower them to learn more and create a wider variety of projects. You can see more tools on my Common Sense Education Coding Collection and in this Symbaloo Mix.