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Everyday Activities for Thinking Like a Computer Scientist

With the new PBS KIDS show, “Lyla in the Loop,” premiering, we’ve been thinking a lot about the show’s fun learning moments. Lyla Loops and her fantastical blue sidekick, Stu, use computational thinking skills to help their friends, family, and community solve everyday problems.

Computational thinking is a way of using creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills to solve problems or challenges in a more organized and manageable way. It’s the type of thinking that computer scientists use when coding, but it can also be used in everyday life!

Computational thinking concepts have names — such as debugging, conditionals, sequencing, and decomposition to name a few! — that make my brain explode. But in watching our family routines, we noticed that we actually use these skills all the time:

  • Fix a morning routine with “debugging.” Who hasn’t struggled with getting out the door on time in the morning? In the episode “Operation Rise and Shine,” Lyla and her siblings use debugging to help fix their morning routine. Debugging is all about figuring out where and what the issue is so you can solve it. They’re always late for school, so each sibling works to “debug” their routine to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it so they can get out the door on time! Ah, so relatable! Ever get a marble stuck in a marble run? Or the remote won’t turn on the TV? Or nothing coming up from your straw? Solving these problems all involve debugging! (Side note: The word “debugging” comes from a bug stuck inside of an old computer. Who knew?)

  • Take out the trash and recycling with “conditionals.” Conditionals are a way we make decisions and choose what to do based on the situation. It’s similar to cause and effect: “If it’s raining, then I will wear a raincoat.” “If the stoplight is red, then I will stop.” When it’s garbage day, we separate items into the recycling bin or the garbage bin so they don’t get mixed up. Lyla learns how not all garbage can be treated the same when she helps out her local sanitation worker in “Sanitation Situation.” When the truck’s mechanical arm breaks down, Lyla and Stu come to the rescue! Lyla gives Stu specific conditional instructions on where each item should go in the truck so they stay separate.

  • Learn the steps to a new dance with “sequencing.” My daughter is into movie musicals lately, so I’ve been teaching her some dances to her favorite songs. To do that, I give her instruction steps to follow in a specific order to do the dance. This is called sequencing. Similarly, Lyla and her family are learning a new dance in “The Carrot Cake Dance.” She’s frustrated because she’s struggling while the rest of her family learned the carrot cake dance quickly. But then she has an idea to make visual symbols to show each dance move step-by-step. That helps her remember each one and the order they go in. We also use sequencing in our daily routines when getting dressed, making a sandwich, and baking cookies!

  • Clean your room with “decomposition.” At the end of a fun day, our living room can sometimes look like a disaster. Cheerios, stuffed animals, and puzzle pieces litter the floor. It’s a big problem! With decomposition, we can break this big problem into small problems to make the big problem easier to solve. First, we pick up all the Cheerios and throw them away. Then, we put away the stuffed animals in their basket. Then, we gather all the puzzle pieces and put them in their box.

To include these computational thinking skills into your everyday routine, here are seven activities and games for you and your kids to play!

  • Play with LEGOs. My husband and daughter love building LEGO sets — and building sets like those are great for thinking like a computer scientist! Following the step-by-step instructions and building small sections at a time uses those decomposition and sequencing skills.

  • Use blocks of different shapes and colors to practice making patterns! Patterns are a huge part of computational thinking.

  • Play matching games like Memory or Go Fish, which helps kids practice sorting and grouping objects. Lyla and her sister, Liana, also use sorting skills in the episode “The Mystery Puzzle” when trying to put together a new puzzle — sorting the pieces by color and shape.

  • Learn a new dance. Just like Lyla, you can do a new dance! Is there a favorite song in your home? Work together to create a step-by-step routine. Then teach it to your friends and family!

  • Build bridges, towers, or other structures from cardboard, blocks, or other household items to build engineering and problem-solving skills. Bridge-a-rama in the PBS KIDS Games app is great for practicing!

  • Draw, paint, or do other art projects. Art encourages creative thinking that is essential for computational thinking! Creating art allows you to play with patterns, do things step-by-step, and more.

Watch the new series, “Lyla in the Loop,” streaming free on PBS KIDS!

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