Why games can be a bonus in primary

Research highlights the value of teaching programming early

Henry Hepburn

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Schoolchildren as young as eight years old can design their own computer games within hours, even if their teachers have no previous expertise in programming, according to research from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).

The researcher behind the project, which was intended to address the "dearth" of evidence around the use of games in schools, believes that starting young with computing is crucial.

PhD student Amanda Wilson found that most groups in a sample of P4-7 children were successful in creating original games after only eight one-hour lessons. Ms Wilson, who will complete her thesis this year, introduced computer game construction to about 300 children at three Glasgow primary schools: Royston, Alexandra Parade and Carntyne.

She said that teachers frequently misunderstood computing and thought it required expertise. But even reluctant teachers at the three schools now "loved" helping children to design computer games. And one teacher with no previous expertise was running game-based lessons.

"They saw how much fun the kids were having and that the kids were doing something productive - then they came round to it," Ms Wilson said. Children who struggled with other aspects of school particularly enjoyed the project, she added.

Among 60 children aged 8-11 at Royston Primary School, most groups managed to create a game using a programming language called Scratch. Young pupils used a simple maze template while older children designed more complex games.

One of the games brought to life Doctor Who villains such as the Daleks, while another circumvented a ban on guns by lining up Wotsits crisps on a virtual wall for players to splat.

Creating computer games was more powerful than playing them, Ms Wilson said, and fostered skills that went beyond programming, such as teamwork and problem-solving. But both "suffer from a dearth of empirical evidence supporting their validity" in education, she noted in a paper written with UWS School of Computing colleagues Thomas Hainey and Thomas M Connolly.

Ms Wilson is encouraged that Curriculum for Excellence includes computer game construction and believes that all school-leavers now require skills in this area. "You have to have some sort of computing experience," she said.

This week TESS reports the views of University of Glasgow psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet (see pages 12-14), who believes schools should accept that there will always be gender divides in certain subjects and that most girls find computing "boring".

Ms Wilson said: "Girls love it as much as the boys, but you need to get in at primary school because by the time of high school they've already made up their minds about certain subjects. If you get them excited at primary school, it can make a difference."

Meanwhile, an Argyll and Bute primary school will compete in the final of a UK-wide competition organised by the Microsoft Educator Network that encourages children to design computer games. The P5s from Cardross Primary School are the first Scottish team to reach a Kodu Kup final and the event will be held in Reading on 17 July. Kodu is a visual programming language designed to be accessible for children and was made specifically for creating games.

"Our pupils are demonstrating creativity, problem-solving, presentation and collaborative working skills, as well as the practical skills of coding and programming using Kodu," said headteacher Elspeth Davis. "We are preparing future programmers. Technology is fun and games but also about learning, and its capacity in this respect is awesome."

Argyll and Bute Council has recently worked with around 50 primary schools on programming projects. It hopes to persuade young people to remain in rural communities by giving them skills that could help them to start online businesses.

"Our challenge is to prepare young people for jobs that may not even exist yet," said Cleland Sneddon, executive director of community services.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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