Kinesthetic Computer Science

Activities that get kids up and moving can help them learn science and technology.

During the first lesson of the year, I give students only two rules: you have to make use of all the materials provided to you, and you can have as much masking tape as you need. At this point the 3-person groups jump into action, although I know that many will not heed my advice about the double-edged sword that is masking tape.

Despite primarily teaching programming and robotics, I begin each year with an engineering challenge. In this case, I ask students to build a freestanding office supply tower out of paper, index cards, wire hangers, and tape. From my observations during these challenges, I learn an incredible amount about the soft skills students bring to the classroom.

Some students barrel through a first failed attempt with grit and a steely-eyed resolve. Others have difficulty listening to teammates and invest way to long in faulty designs. However, by the end they all come to realize that, despite its abundance, masking tape is heavy. As their towers list to the side burdened with tape, they at least have a better understanding that gravity is a force to be respected.

Very simply, these lessons are a quick diagnostic for me to understand where my students are cognitively. However, I have come to see these lessons as more than an enjoyable on-ramp to the year. Lessons that incorporate kinesthetic learning are an essential ingredient in the STEM classroom because they reach students that traditional coding courses can repel.

Kinesthetic learners learn while doing. They can be turned off or distracted by long sessions at a computer screen. It is harder for them to codify and retain information when it is presented visually or spoken orally. Due to these barriers, they can begin to believe that technology is “not their thing” or they aren’t “computer smart”. The constructivist educator Samuel Pappert, I assert, would have disagreed with them.

An MIT professor and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, Pappert believed that students learn best when they are actively building things. He created the LOGO language and the first iteration of turtle programming – a roving, drawing turtle robot. As a Computer Science teacher, I find I am continually returning to Pappert’s teaching philosophy.

Pappert’s encouragement of making and doing as a part of computing is an idea that has inspired much of the maker movement, and continues to influence educators today. I keep a copy of his article “Twenty Things to do with a Computer” in my room at all times, consider it a touchstone, and return to it frequently.

In a recent lesson on algorithms and route finding, I had a moment of inspiration to grab some kinesthetic learners. I taped small Xs one meter apart on the carpets around the intersecting hallways of our school. Route-finding algorithms can be quite complicated to implement, but are simple in theory. Students were given starting points and destinations and had to find the optimal route by numbering the steps working backwards from their destination.

During the lesson I watched as students made assumptions about the fastest route, and while some of their assumptions were correct, some found otherwise. In the end, I saw greater numbers of engaged students and they digested a complicated topic rather quickly. Moreover, the lesson became an instructive model for algorithms and how they work.

Some days my classes look more like drama warm-ups as students are in my room acting out how logic gates work. Other days it can look like a science lab as they observe a jumping student to better program gravity in game design. As much as possible, I try to pair kinesthetic activity with coding concepts. The convenience of the internet and modern computing has reduced the physicality of programming – to the detriment of some students. Getting students literally walking in the footsteps of innovators like Samuel Pappert and Admiral Grace Hopper in my mind helps keep STEM inclusive. Furthermore, as a teacher who is trying to catch all the diverse learners out there, I find it is essential to what I do.

Learn More

About kinesthetic learning

16 characteristics of kinesthetic and tactile learners

Engaging students in STEM


  • Tim McGuigan

    Tim McGuigan teaches middle school Computer Science and Robotics and is the Farrell Chair for Innovation at Shady Side Academy.

Also In The April 2018 Issue

Who chooses new emojis? And what’s coming in the next batch?

Build your own voice-controlled digital assistant with a Raspberry Pi and an analog speaker.

Using Scratch and some simple vector math, create your own Boids algorithm to simulate the flight of birds.

6 hands-on STEM camps and clubs to join this summer.

With these new high-tech cards, public transit is easier than ever.

Slice digital photos into pieces and have fun pasting them back together.

Meet the cute little bot that’s helping scientists understand the courtship of frogs.

Dive into the nitty-gritty of game-making with this popular Python library.

Learn about the Native soldiers and the creative cypher code that helped win WWII.

Our cars aren’t quite driving themselves, but they can help us park and avoid collisions.

Make your games even more exciting with custom user-created content!

A clever teacher uses our favourite round robot to bring books to life.

Learn how to search through blobs of text with speed, accuracy, and elegance… like a ninja!

Links from the bottom of all the April 2018 articles, collected in one place for you to print, share, or bookmark.

Interesting stories about computer science, software programming, and technology for April 2018.

Interested but not ready to subscribe? Sign-up for our free monthly email newsletter with curated site content and a new issue email announcement that we send every two months.

No, thanks!