How to incorporate algorithm design into your service

Algorithm is a term we tend to associate with the complex work of computer software programmers or a concept only understood by information technology (IT) professionals but algorithm design is also a skill which can be taught to help young children develop critical thinking and logical problem-solving abilities, Emily Campbell writes.

Algorithms are defined simply as “the essence of computational thinking, which is a set of critical thinking processes that help students become effective and creative problem solvers” (International Society for Technology in Education and Computer Science Teachers Association, 2011).

At their core, algorithms involve creating and following step-by-step procedures to achieve a desired outcome.

The authors of a recent study into algorithm design for young children argue it is important for early childhood education teachers to create and implement algorithm design tasks that involve repeated step-by-step procedures to build strong foundational computational thinking skills in the young children they teach.

Plugged vs unplugged activities

Computational thinking is described as having four major thinking skills – algorithm design, decomposition, pattern recognition and abstraction and, although these skills are intertwined, algorithm design is the most critical computational thinking component (International Society, 2011).

The researchers say fostering young children’s aptitude for algorithm-specific thinking-and-doing processes creates a foundation for logical thinking and can be done through either ‘plugged’ or ‘unplugged’ activities.

Examples of ‘plugged’ activities involve computers to help build children’s understanding of algorithms in association with coding materials through games and toys and using coding tools to find correct paths.

On the other hand, ‘unplugged’ activities are those which don’t involve a computer but connect to the children’s daily lives, meaning algorithm design skills are used to understand and follow rules, find routes, and analyse and correct sequences.

The research paper contains ‘unplugged’ activity suggestions and practical guidance for early childhood education teachers to use in their classrooms.

Unplugged activity ideas

A major benefit of unplugged activities is they are cost-effective and can be easily implemented in a variety of different settings and classrooms to help children develop algorithm design skills.

Teachers might already be implementing unplugged algorithm tasks in their early childhood education practice without even realising they are doing so.

The researchers stress it is important, when conducting algorithm activities, to use intentional language and explicit instructions to help the children they teach build the necessary algorithm thinking skills.

In the paper, they detail the following activity ideas for early childhood teachers to embed in their classes which help develop algorithmic skills.

Following a recipe

Hosting an activity such as helping children follow a simple recipe to make food such as an ice cream sundae or sandwich, can promote algorithm design skills.

“There is a clear algorithmic order to be followed: leave out the bowl and you will end up with a mess; forget to include the spoon and enjoying the sundae will not be easy,” the authors wrote.

Recipes involve a step-by-step procedure that matches the goal of an algorithm and it’s crucial to model the instructions using ordinal words, such as first, second, third, with each step.

After the children have completed making the ice cream sundae, teachers should ask them to list the steps they followed using ordinal words: “First get a bowl and spoon”, “Second, scoop ice cream into the bowl” and so forth.

Performing this recap process helps reinforce remembering each step in a sequence whilst developing new language skills and expanding vocabulary.

“Teachers must make explicit links between the order of the steps in a task and the idea of an algorithm to help students develop the ability to follow and design their own algorithms for solving complex problems,” they wrote.

Creating a treasure map

Another example of an activity to help children think about repeated step-by-step procedures is asking them to hide some treasure and create their own treasure map.

The process means children can find a place to hide some treasure and to describe where the treasure is located using ordinal and directional words, including forward, backward, left, right, up, down, under, over etc.

When the children create a treasure map, they are in fact designing an entire algorithm to find the treasure and when they locate treasure, they are following the algorithm.

Teachers can assist the children with scaffolding their algorithm design skills when asking them to follow and create treasure maps that include the number of steps with directional words or arrows.

Engaging in conversation with the children about how the algorithm helps to complete the task successfully helps build language skills by describing the process and reinforces knowledge of algorithm design.

Daily routine

According to the authors, language-mediated daily routines are vital for helping children understand how procedures contribute to predictable routines.

Something as simple as a daily routine involves algorithms about what children will do in a sequence.

“A teacher may share a daily routine during whole-group circle time in the morning to introduce what the children will do during the day, such as free play time, snack time, outdoor play time and so on,” they wrote.

Like the recipe and treasure map activities, teachers should use ordinal and directional words to help children build algorithmic thinking skills when describing daily routines.

For example, a teacher might model use of this language by saying, “First, we will have free play time. Second, we will have a snack break time,” and so on.

Another useful way to share and outline routines with preschool age children is to co-create posters to help visually reinforce the sequence of a routine.

It can be helpful to refer to the poster and discuss the daily routine in a sequence using ordinal numbers and create opportunity for children to practice talking with their peers about upcoming events and routines using ordinal language.

Raising a generation of problem-solvers

Practising algorithm design activities during early childhood education programs help children become logical thinkers and build computational skills in an increasingly digital world.

The unplugged activities mentioned above are just a few fun and age-appropriate examples in which early education teachers can equip the next generation to become effective and creative problem solvers.

Members who want to learn more or read the full study can access the research paper online at

References: Lee, J., Joswick, C., Pole, K., & Jocius, R. (2022). Algorithm design for young children. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 23(2), 198–202.

International Society for Technology in Education and Computer Science Teachers Association (2011) Operational definition of computational thinking for K–12 education. Available at: