Kindergarten Code

School News
May 7, 2019- “If you touch the hot lava, you die!” says one of the kindergarten students in Tim Sinnott’s Kindergarten Coding Class. To illustrate the gravity of the situation, the student touches a red circle that is a part of an obstacle course he’s created for a robot and falls over into a pile of pillows. Lying motionless, eyes closed, and trying hard to suppress his laughter, he peeks out of one eye at his teammate, and both erupt in uncontrollable giggles. They are excited, they are engaged, and they are learning to just five and six years of age.

During the fourth quarter, VMS kindergarten students have been working with computer science teacher, Tim Sinnott, who also teaches the school’s eldest and most advanced students in programming classes like Hands-On Coding and AP Computer Science.

Sinnott considers himself more of a guide than a teacher, though. “Coding is not just a bunch of vocabulary words and commands, it’s a way of thinking and problem solving,” he notes in describing his philosophical approach. “I want them to come away with a strong interest in programming, a desire to learn more, and a sense that coding is a fun, creative process.”  

Given the laughter and the way that Mr. Sinnott has engaged his students’ imaginations, it would seem he’s hit the mark. 

On the floor of the kindergarten classroom, Mr. Sinnott has set up blank boards with carefully plotted grids. Working in small groups, the students have been challenged to create a maze and program their robot to navigate it. The grid corresponds to preset intervals of movement built into Bee-Bots, simple robots that can be programmed with sequences of movements in four directions- forward, back, left, and right. In computer science, this is called algorithmic thinking, which is a way of getting to a solution through the clear definition of the steps needed.

To the casual observer, a solution might look like moving left, forward, forward, right, forward, forward, forward, but to the kindergarten students, it's avoiding a pit of fire, going through a secret passageway, and getting to a castle to save their friend.

“Coding is a mindset and a way of problem solving that makes it so much more than just a skill in a student’s toolbox,” says Sinnott. “Computers are everywhere and they run on code written by programmers, so as future leaders, our children must be able to embrace this mindset and develop fluency in these languages.”

The genesis of the class came from Lower School Director, Kristin Douthitt, who approached Sinnott about creating a coding “special” just for the kindergarten students. 

“I started by asking what would be beneficial to their learning and growth as students who will graduate in the year 2031. Coding came to mind as both necessary and innovative,” notes Mrs. Douthitt. “I consulted with our educational technology expert, Kim Zimmer, and we collaborated with Mr. Sinnott to create developmentally-appropriate curriculum designed to introduce our youngest minds to coding. As we continue to review and refine curriculum, I hope to grow this program as I know that this kind of purposeful technology instruction can be transformative.”

And while Mr. Sinnott has definitely seen many transformations in his students this quarter, some of them have been unexpected. “The way that the students collaborated was the real surprise for me,” notes Mr. Sinnott. “Going into this, I was unsure if sharing, taking turns, and working together would be a stumbling block for students of this age, but they stepped up and navigated these challenges really well. And at the end of the day, this is among the most important takeaways. Coders rarely work alone in the professional world. It’s an incredibly collaborative process with people spread out across the globe working on the same problem.”