Tangible Programming in Early Childhood:

Revising Developmental Assumptions through New Technologies

This is a challenging time for early childhood education (K-2). On the one hand, there is increasing, federally-mandated pressure placed on the education of young children, particularly in the fields of math, science, engineering, and technology. On the other hand, there is growing concern to respect the developmental capabilities of young children when presenting such content.

The TangibleK project was an interdisciplinary, NSF-funded project to investigate the use of innovative new technology in early elementary school. In particular, we focused on computer programming and robotics with the goal of understanding what is developmentally appropriate for young children in light of novel human-computer interaction techniques that provide more age-appropriate access to technology. We developed and piloted an innovative programming environment called CHERP (Creative Hybrid Environment for Robotic Programming), a hybrid tangible/graphical computer language, in eight classrooms and numerous afterschool programs, reaching approximately 240 children.


At the heart of this proposal was the claim that, for a variety of reasons, modern graphical user interfaces (GUI) are ill-suited for use in early elementary school. Instead, this project set out to build a tangible user interface (TUI) technology to create a tangible programming language for young children. That is, rather than using a mouse of a keyboard to write programs to control robots, children instead constructed programs by connecting smart wooden blocks shaped like jigsaw puzzle pieces. This approach created a unique opportunity to separate the intellectual act of computer programming from the confounding factors of modern GUIs and complex mechanical constructions. In turn, it provided a means to better understand the developmental capabilities of young children with respect to computer programming and robotics.

This project was supported by the National Science Foundation Advanced Learning Technology Grant No. DRL-0735657.

NSF Logo