Teaching Children Algorithms : Starting With A Four Year Old

Teaching Children Algorithms

In two months my daughter will be five. This weekend I wanted to teach her two things. The first was to start riding her bike without stabilisers. The second was the word Algorithm, what it means and what one is.

Algorithms - just like riding a bike, sort of.
Algorithms – just like riding a bike, sort of.

The first lesson, riding her bike, is going to take longer than this weekend but she gave it a good crack.

The second, learning about Algorithms was much easier and she got it straight away. I was astonished at how easily she picked up the word and handled it. She can now tell anyone who asks (pretty much me) that Algorithm means ‘instructions to do something’. She even offered her own example Algorithm as I was stuttering around for a suitable one.

Children continue to prove they are mentally as quick if not quicker than I am most of the time. She asked if an algorithm could “paint a square” so we wrote a square algorithm, verbally, during a car journey: draw across, draw down, draw back across then draw up. Granted, it needs some additional accuracy but considering all that was learned and practised in the space of five minutes is incredible.

Her ability to grasp the word, understand it and furnish the word with her own examples gives great credibility to the idea that children at this age can learn to solve problems programmatically. In fact, the hardest part was pronouncing it!

The reason I wanted to start with the word Algorithm was simple. For me, Algorithm is the most powerful word in our Computer Science lexicon. It is the single most important foundation upon which the discipline sits and can build on. That single word can solve millions of problems larger than the mind can often comprehend. It’s a mathematically beautiful concept. The fact a Turing complete machine can run all algorithms is poetry.

Algorithm sounds a bit lofty, a classical sounding word that appears much more complicated that it is. It’s not. Like most mathematics, it’s a simple, economic and elegant idea.

For me it’s the heart of computer science and the part to focus on with children because once they grasp it, everything else is easy.

Sort of.