What is computational thinking?

The foundational logic behind how computers work and how we use them.

At Learning Beautiful, we provide tactile materials that children need to learn computational thinking. Most people don’t realize that computational thinking isn’t about learning to use a computer–in fact, you don’t need a computer at all! Computational thinking is about understanding how logic, abstraction, representation, and patterns–in other words, computation–exist in the real world. We can introduce these ideas to young children in a developmentally appropriate manner, without digital media.

The computer scientist Jeannette M. Wing gives an inspiring definition of computational thinking. “Computational thinking involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science.” By this definition, computational thinking is relevant to almost every other discipline; it is a new literacy, and we created these materials to teach the ABCs.

In addition to the materials, Learning Beautiful provides a comprehensive curriculum. Together, these help parents and educators introduce the building blocks of computational thinking, including programming, binary number systems, representation, Boolean logic, and data structures. It includes concepts such as sequences, loops, parallelism, events, conditionals, operators, and data. As children experiment, they discover what it means to iterate and share, to test and debug, to reuse and remix, to abstract and modularize.

In other words, computational thinking is about extending the definition of computer science to include the foundational logic behind how computers work and how we use them. These concepts reach children with diverse interests, and especially ones who may not think of themselves as mathematically or scientifically inclined (yet!). We believe that computational thinking is a vital foundation to prepare children for the future.

Who is Learning Beautiful for?

Young children (ages 3-9) and curious minds (ages 9+).

Our materials are designed for children ages 3 - 9. And while that seems like a big age difference (it is!) there are reasons why we do this. Inspired by the Montessori Method, we create materials that break down abstract concepts into discrete, tangible form. In other words, the materials are open ended. They are not a simple game that can be “won” or “finished”–they are a learning tool that children can continue to explore with varying degrees of complexity. Our curriculum are a guide for parents and educators to tune the materials to various developmental stages with activities and new ideas.

For the youngest learners, our materials provide a foundation through sensorial experience. A 3 year old will have a highly explorative and sensorial interaction with the Binary Towers, for example (dropping the balls in the boxes, counting, seeing patterns), and through that, will begin to develop mental models. From there, all of the materials are scaffolded. Each lesson builds on previous ideas to become increasingly complex.

As a child gets older (6 or 7), the same materials connect with new vocabulary. For example, a 6 year old can understand that computers use a different number system, and that the Binary Towers help to understand that system, and “translate” between the two. They realize that the objective is to communicate with computers.

These materials progress with the child, and also allow for different ages to experience them in nuanced ways. And for those 9 and up… great! These materials are helpful visualizations for all ages and help a variety of learners grasp abstract ideas through sight, touch, and sound.

Should young children be learning computer science?

Yes! And they should start with the basics.

Today, computer science is considered by many to be a new literacy. Computational thinking is being considered along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, an essential foundation. Yet the majority of classrooms do not include computer science in their curriculum. There are over 500,000 unfilled computer science jobs in the US, and the number is growing… Computational thinking is the only certain foundation for skills that will be important tomorrow. And evidence shows that even young children can learn the core concepts.

Physical objects can shape a child’s learning experience and establish a foundational understanding that will serve them later in their lives. As we grow, our brains develop complex skills from the basic mental building blocks that precede them, especially those learned in early years. You probably remember your own set of blocks, or a favorite toy car that helped you understand axles and wheels, or a simple bag for collecting stones. Whether or not you realized it at the time, that bag was key to your understanding of weights, addition, and subtraction. As you filled and emptied it, you were exploring the world around you, and becoming a part of it.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was forever changed by the set of blocks he received as a young child–a material called the Froebel Gifts. Similarly, the computer scientist and educator Seymour Papert wrote poetically about the gears from his childhood. Papert knew how important those gears were in his childhood development. They were part of his natural landscape, part of the adult world around him. The gears allowed him to use his own body to think about mechanical relationships—they were the bridge between abstract physics and his own corporeal experience. In this sense, physical materials have a transitive quality–they allow us to build mental models. “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models,” said Papert. Papert called the gears an “object-to-think-with.” Papert’s gears and Wright’s Froebel Gifts contained information that allowed them to understand more formal mathematical ideas later on.

How can you teach computer science without computers?

Our materials teach the underlying building blocks of computational thinking (pun intended!).

Computer science is often introduced to children through programming. That means that students spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen, mostly learning how to use the programming software itself. This method certainly has educational value, but only for older students, and only if it builds on a solid knowledge of the underlying principles of how computers actually work. And software changes rapidly, so it is important to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals.

Furthermore, recent research about screen exposure is unambiguous: too much screen time for young children is detrimental for their development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one or two hours a day for children, and no screen time at all for very young children. Excessive screen time is proven to damage areas of the brain devoted to emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.

At Learning Beautiful, we believe that the principles of computation–ideas like binary number systems, representation, Boolean logic, and data structures–those foundations really aren’t about computers or software. They’re about computational thinking. And we believe there is no better method than Montessori’s timeless approach.

Physical objects can shape a child’s learning experience and establish a foundational understanding that will serve them later in their lives. As we grow, our brains develop complex skills from the basic mental building blocks that precede them, especially those learned in early years. You probably remember your own set of blocks, or a favorite toy car that helped you understand axles and wheels, or a simple bag for collecting stones. Whether or not you realized it at the time, that bag was key to your understanding of weights, addition, and subtraction. As you filled and emptied it, you were exploring the world around you, and becoming a part of it.

What is Montessori?

A time-tested approach to tactile, creative, and empowering learning, across developmental stages.

Dr. Montessori believed that it is crucial for children to develop fundamental capacities during the first years of life. Children should not only engage in academic learning, but also develop the ability to concentrate, persevere, develop independence, and socially interact with others. The earliest years lay a strong foundation for a child’s future development. The Montessori education nurtures a child’s intrinsic motivation, encourages children of various ages to interact and learn from their peers, and allows children to guide themselves through uninterrupted blocks of time.

The Montessori Method has proven timeless relevance in education. In a study from 2006, Angeline Lillard evaluated the social and academic impact of the Montessori education. Lillard selected children in the primary (3-6) and elementary (6-12) age group, and through a lottery from a pool of interested parents, Lillard set up a control group and an experimental (Montessori) group at a Montessori school in Wisconsin. Using a lottery system addressed the concern that parents who seek to enroll their child in a Montessori school are different from parents who do not. At the end of the study, the children in the Montessori group outperformed the traditional school group on tests for cognitive, academic, social, and behavioral skills.

When we were researchers in the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab, we thought a lot about the future of education. This led us to develop an innovative model for small schools in neighborhood shopfronts. The little learning spaces were a perfect home for the Montessori approach. As we learned more about it, we were inspired by how Montessori education breaks down abstract, complex ideas into simple building blocks.

Learning Beautiful is about extending Montessori’s approach to include additional areas that are important today and tomorrow, specifically, computational thinking. We worked with and learned from our Montessori friends as we designed developmentally-appropriate educational toys to introduce computer science education through enriching play. And today, we aspire to extend the reach of these materials to all children, regardless of classroom pedagogy.

I am an educator/librarian/parent but I don’t know anything about computers. Can I use Learning Beautiful with my children?

Yes! These materials are made for exploration, and they are paired with formal curricula and informal play books to help you get started.

The short answer: that’s great! The long answer: computers, software, data... these can be a little intimidating. Rightfully so! Everyone (including adults) needs to approach big, abstract and complex ideas through smaller building blocks. Learning Beautiful materials are carefully designed to be friendly and approachable; they welcome adults to learn together with children. Our all natural, simple toys make you feel comfortable because you enjoy holding them in your hands. After all, our team comes from backgrounds like art and architecture–we had to learn computational thinking also!

Computer science is often not included in classrooms because teachers do not feel comfortable teaching the content. Perhaps they are not trained or are not sure how this would be integrated into their existing curriculum. We wrote a teacher and a librarian handbook to provide more directed programming and lessons, even for teachers who have no prior knowledge or experience with computers. And we designed playbooks that you can read together with your little learners–fun narratives that describe big ideas and how they use relate to the materials.

We have spent years isolating important computational ideas as the simplest possible physical objects. As a result, our materials engage a variety of learners with different needs and interests, subject knowledge or background. The most important rule, for you and your students, is... have fun!

How did you develop the curriculum?

Several years of collaborating with children, Montessori teachers, and computer scientists.

We began our work at the MIT Media Lab, where we worked in close collaboration between artists, educators, Montessori experts, and computer scientists, particularly computer scientist Sanjoy Mahajan. We designed a scope and sequence to represent logic-based concepts that underpin how computers work. Our team feels strongly that the curriculum must focus on a broad range of concepts, including (but not limited to) programming. These form the building blocks for a comprehensive understanding of computer science.

The materials are designed to be used across many stages of early childhood development, and the scaffolded curriculum helps parents, librarians and teachers introduce ideas through that increasing complexity. And yet the basic concepts are non-sequential – they form a network. Specific ideas are clustered into larger topic areas: bits, structures, algorithms, and representation. As a network, the concepts all relate to each other, but the materials can each be used independently. In some cases, two materials can be used simultaneously.

In addition to the core logical concepts, computational thinking requires processes such as checking for error, abstraction, representation, and iteration. These are embedded in the lessons as well. For example, the self-correcting materials allow children to check for errors and fix the mistakes they find.  

Safety and Manufacturing

Our materials meet safety standards and are ethically manufactured in small batches.

We use only high-quality, non-toxic, natural materials in everything we make, and we believe in ethically responsible manufacturing processes. We work closely with our small-scale fabricators who are based in Wisconsin, United States. We are a certified Small-Batch Manufacturer, and all of our materials have been tested for Lead and under the ASTM F963.

All of our materials are intended for children ages 3 and up. Parents and caregivers should always be cautious, our materials do contain small pieces that have choking risk. Materials should be used with adult supervision.

Do you have trainings?

Please reach out to learn more about our training program.

We offer workshops in schools that are interested in training several teachers at once, and a certification model for anchor schools that set up regional training programs. If you are interested in hosting a Learning Beautiful workshop, or setting up a regional training program, we would love to hear from you! Our workshops are flexible and can be tailored to your needs.

And of course, we are always eager to explore how Learning Beautiful can be used in new places and in new ways. We are always inspired by like-minded educators, and always eager to learn if you have suggestions or experiences to share. Please reach out to us!