Paper vs. Screens by Christine McDonnell, CEO at Codelicious

6 min read
Guest post by Christine McDonnell, CEO at Codelicious

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Traditional coding activities dictate that students sit in front of laptops or tablets, working to develop a program or a game. This approach, however, does not resonate with all types of students and learners. Luckily, there are many different ways to help students understand code. You may be able to remove devices to help reinforce key concepts.

Unplugged activities allow educators to teach coding away from laptops and tablets. This gives teachers the flexibility to engage all learning styles in the classroom. Furthermore, unplugged activities encourage teamwork, problem-solving, abstract thinking, and more. For example, Ms. Bersani, a STEAM teacher at Blue Academy Elementary School, used the Codelicious computer science curriculum to teach her fourth-grade students how to write their initials in binary code using beads and bracelets. This activity required students’ active participation to create a tangible final product. Students could visualize the outcome of binary code without sitting in front of a device.

Learning to code is just one important aspect of computer science. Unplugged activities open the door so that all students can engage with computer science principles. Understanding unplugged activities (what they are, their benefits, and how to lead them) gives teachers the ability to stretch their lessons beyond the traditional coding classroom.

What are Unplugged Activities? 

Unplugged activities introduce students to programming through exercises that can be done offline. Many of these lessons incorporate tangible objects typically found in the classroom. This method is advantageous for students of all ages. For young students, educators can impart basic coding knowledge and inspire future exploration. For more mature students, educators can create connections with advanced concepts through role-playing, analogies, and other visual exercises. Overall, unplugged activities engage students without the use of technology and helps them more fully understand coding concepts.

Why Should I Take My Students Offline? 

Unplugged activities allow students to understand how programming works before adding the technology component. Computers tend to add a level of difficulty with young students who may struggle to navigate coding skills. This is where unplugged activities come in handy. When you want students to conceptualize a programming function, offline activities develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills necessary to learn a specific coding language. Educators are also able to implement these activities anywhere – without the need for a device such as a laptop or tablet. Best of all, an interactive coding curriculum that includes unplugged activities has the ability to get every one of your students involved.

How Do I Lead Unplugged Activities? 

First, identify a coding concept to build an activity around. Some simple examples to consider are loops, conditionals, or sequencing. Next, ensure you understand the concept at a fairly basic level; loops, for example, are repeated actions within code. Then, look at a way to tie the concept to a non-screen activity. In the loops example, this might look like asking students to list activities that they repeat each day (teeth brushing, putting on clothes, etc.).

Here are three other ideas for unplugged activities that you can implement in your classroom.

  • Coding a maze: Teach students how to think like a programmer. A maze activity introduces a variety of programming concepts like loops and conditional statements at many different levels. Have one set of students build a simple maze, another set will act as the “programmer” while the third set is the “character”. Depending on the level, students will create a specific set of instructions or commands to guide the “character” through the maze as efficiently as possible.
  • Create binary bracelets: Binary code is the simplest form of programming. The language uses zeros and ones to represent a letter, digit, or other characters in a computer. This is the only way computers send, receive and store information. Use one color of bead to represent zeros and a different color of bead to represent ones, then have students practice their binary code by making bracelets with their name.
  • Unplugged peanut butter and jelly: This activity encourages the classroom to work together and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This requires someone acting as the “robot” to stand at the front of the room and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while following directions from the students. The robot is mimicking how a computer takes directions from code. This exercise shows the students how specific they need to be when giving directions.

By incorporating classroom activities that step away from screens, teachers help their students apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills to non-technology areas of life. Try an unplugged activity for yourself and see the impact it can have on your students.

About Christine

Christine McDonnell is the CEO and Co-Founder of Codelicious, a provider of full-year computer science curriculum which is project-based, teacher-led, and aligned to CSTA standards. Christine graduated Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University with Bachelor’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and earned her MBA in Corporate Strategy and Marketing from the University of Michigan. Prior to Codelicious, Christine led her own consulting practice, McDonnell & Associates, which focused on counseling high-growth technology ventures. Additionally, Christine served as Vice President of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, leading the team that developed the strategic vision and operating model for what is now the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. She also held leadership positions at McKinsey & Company and DuPont and is a member of Women in High Tech. Christine is passionate about creating access and removing barriers to teaching and learning computer science in schools. You can connect with Christine on LinkedIn or

About Codelicious

Codelicious provides full-year computer science curriculum for K-12. Resources included with Codelicious curriculum empower any teacher to teach computer science. Through teacher-led coursework, educators deliver all aspects of computer science, beyond just coding. As a result, Codelicious curriculum provides the foundational knowledge students need to be successful in college, career, and life.

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