Let’s get physical

Pupils don’t need to be glued to a desk to learn about computing – instead, why not get them up and about programming robots, lights, buzzers and motors? Neil Rickus shows you how
23rd January 2017, 1:16pm
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Let’s get physical


The notion of computing being undertaken at a desk with a screen is a common one in the primary classroom. However, a student’s understanding of programming concepts and computational thinking can be just as easily developed in other ways. 

One method increasingly used to engage primary children is through the use of physical computing and robotics, which involves the programming of lights, buzzers, motors, buttons and other electronic devices. Using these components, pupils can solve problems and develop creative projects, with cross-curricular links to design and technology and science providing a range of possibilities. 

What equipment is available? 

Below I have highlighted technology that can be found in many primary schools, particularly at key stage 2, although their prevalence and use varies significantly. The first three devices - the Crumble, the CodeBug and the micro:bit - are based around a small circuit board containing LEDs and each has the ability to connect with other electronic components. Each has a visual, block-based, programming environment available for pupils to enter their code and is similar in functionality to the ever-popular Scratch.


The Crumble is often considered the most suitable physical computing device for primary-aged children and has a vast range of resources to enable teachers to get the most from the device (code-it.co.uk/crumble/crumble). Crumbs - additional components, such as sliders and touch switches - can be quickly and safely connected in series to the board without having to worry too much about the complexity of resistors, voltages and amps. The CrumbleBot enables the board to be turned into a robot with line sensing and proximity-measuring technology.

Cost: around £12 for the board, or £20 for a starter kit including USB cable, crocodile clips, switch, LEDs, battery box.


The micro:bit is another excellent board for the primary classroom. Originally given to every Year 7 pupil nationwide by the BBC last year, the micro:bit is continuing to be developed through the micro:bit Educational Foundation (microbit.org). A significant number of projects have been implemented using the device, including step counters and automated table football games, which can be used in lessons to inspire pupils and go beyond topics typically covered in the curriculum. Industry partners are continuing to take an interest in the micro:bit, with the Bloodhound Race Team recently organising a nationwide micro:bit rocket car race, while The Big Food Survey enabled children to use their micro:bit to participate in scientific research.

Cost: around £13 for the board or £16 for a kit containing a USB cable and battery pack. 


The CodeBug is a great introductory device and is particularly effective when integrated within wearable technology, such as a scrolling display badge or a Christmas decoration (bit.ly/Xmasstuff) or combined with additional glowbug lights. Unlike the Crumble and the micro:bit, the CodeBug can be powered away from the computer by a watch (CR2032) battery inserted into the board’s rear, rather than needing bulkier AA or AAA batteries.

Cost: around £15 for the board and USB cable.

FlowGo with Go Control

The FlowGo control box is often already in schools and was used as part of the old ICT curriculum. The control box allows electronic components to be connected to a PC. The components can subsequently be programmed using flow diagrams through the Go Control software, which provides an alternative method of implementing the programming concepts of sequencing, selection and repetition.

Cost: around £100 for the control box and £150 for the software licence. 

Lego WeDo

Despite being relatively expensive, the Lego WeDo kits provide guided activities to cover the programming aspects of the computing curriculum, yet also enable children to quickly build their own models when participating in more open-ended activities. The most recent version’s control hub, Lego WeDo 2.0, works via Bluetooth, which means programming activities can take place on tablets in addition to desktop PCs. WeDo comes with its own block-based programming environment or Scratch can be used as an alternative.

Cost: around £130 for the core set and software.


This robotic ball can be controlled as a gaming device, using a tablet as a controller, or programmed to undertake sequences of instructions. Pupils could therefore create their own assault course/maze in a design and technology session. They could then challenge their peers to write a program to navigate the ball, or produce code to make the ball visit different locations on a floor mat, such as places on a local area map in geography. The Sphero compatible Tickle programming app (tickleapp.com) can also be used to program drones, racing cars, BB-8 (from Star Wars) and home automation systems, if money is no object!

Cost: approximately £100 for the ball and charger.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation (raspberrypi.org) has now sold more than 10 million units of the pocket-sized computer, which is increasingly being used in the primary classroom. Add-on boards can be slotted on top of the device, with the Pibrella (pibrella.com) and Pi-Stop both allowing pupils to program sets of traffic lights, for example. Packs of compatible electronic components, including a range of tutorials, are available through the CamJam EduKits (bit.ly/CamjamEdukit)

Cost: the latest Pi 3 Model B can be picked up for around £30.

What are the barriers?

Despite the benefits outlined above, there are a number of barriers to implementing physical computing in the primary school. After contacting a number of fellow primary computing teachers on Twitter, Phil Bagge, computing inspector and adviser for the Hampshire Inspection and Advisory Service, tweeted that there were three main issues: time, kit and teacher expertise. Are there any solutions? 

Lack of time

The primary school curriculum is already extremely busy and additional time for computing sessions is hard to come by. Physical computing devices could therefore be used as part of cross-curricular topics. Alternatively, the devices could be used for a small amount of time in lessons, with keener pupils using them further during lunchtime or in after-school clubs. Regardless of when usage takes place, digital leaders (bit.ly/DigitalLeadersStart) can be used to prepare the devices before the sessions.

Lack of kit

Money is unfortunately a significant barrier, especially if devices are only going to be used in a handful of lessons during the academic year. Devices could be bought second-hand, or purchases shared with local schools or academy partners. Alternatively, it may be possible to borrow devices and some Computing at School (CAS) regional centres have a loan service available. If only a few devices are shared among a class, programs can often be run on screen before being transferred to the physical device, which allows pupils to check they’re working as expected prior to having a turn with the hardware.

Lack of expertise 

Using physical devices in the classroom adds an additional layer of complexity to lessons and is another technology that could potentially malfunction. Teachers therefore need to be confident with programming on screen before experimenting further, along with having knowledge of appropriate classroom pedagogy. Digital leaders could be used to provide additional support in lessons, or initial sessions scheduled when more assistance can be provided, such as from a teaching assistant, support engineer or CAS master teacher.

Neil Rickus is a senior lecturer in computing education at the University of Hertfordshire, a primary school teacher and an independent trainer/consultant. He is on Twitter @computingchamps

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