“Unplugged” Computer Science Activities: Homeschool, Afterschool, or in a Curriculum

“Unplugged” Computer Science Activities: Homeschool, Afterschool, or in a Curriculum

In the 21st century, computer science is both a huge part of the present and the future. As the job market and everyday life turn towards technology, it is important to get students interested in computer science and programming early. There are a handful of programming languages that are useful to learn, but teachers struggle to incorporate coding into their curriculums due to a lack of resources, specifically a computer for each student to write code or a lack of a deep understanding of computer science topics in general. This is where unplugged, or no computer needed, activities come in handy.

Tim Bell, a computer scientist from New Zealand known for his work on text compression and computer music, realized that some students were intimidated by computer science or had negative attitudes about it, thinking there is no need to understand technology to be able to use it. Some students believe the only jobs in computer science involve sitting behind a screen, staring at thousands of lines of code, but unplugged activities help them realize these careers can entail so much more than just programming. For this reason, Bell developed the first unplugged computer science activities to get students engaged and excited about computer science topics they weren’t previously able to be exposed to in an exciting way.  


Teachers can use “unplugged” activities as an alternative introduction to computer science and programming languages. This is a great way for students to become familiar with sometimes abstract ideas of computer science such as compilers, networks, binary code, and cyber security. These activities can be easily incorporated into afterschool programs or curriculums. Problem solving skills and creativity are vital to solve coding problems in the most efficient ways, and unplugged activities help students realize computer science is a lot more than learning how to code a webpage in HTML.


Another benefit of unplugged activities is their ability to appeal to all types of learners. There are three types of learners: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learners benefit from seeing what they need to learn, which calls for the use of pictures, colors, and diagrams. Auditory learners pick up information that is conveyed verbally, benefiting from asking questions and using analogies to explain concepts. Kinesthetic learners understand concepts that are conveyed using high energy, hands-on activities. Types of learning can affect how well students understand the material, and how interested they become in the subjects presented. Knowing your students’ s learning styles can help them make connections to the material so they can retain and deeply understand computer science topics. This calls for more than one type of learning in the classroom. What works for one student might totally be different for another, no matter the age, but young children especially benefit from kinesthetic learning. It keeps them actively engaged with the subject at hand, and gives them tangible examples they will remember when they need to recall or add onto the knowledge they have already acquired. Trying unplugged activities amid computer-based activities to target all three types of learners in the classroom can give a huge advantage to your students. 

These activities are a great way to get kids actively involved and working together to figure out computer science concepts, and are perfect to try during Computer Science Education Week. They are also a great tool for homeschools or after school programs to use, as most of the items can be found easily, and these projects are suitable for a wide range of ages to work together.

Unplugged tutorials can be found in dozens of topics including pseudocode, debugging, functions, actions, and object oriented programming, but these are just the beginning. There are plenty of lessons plans to be found online, and they can always be tweaked to fit your classes needs and specific schedule. This information is often free, and can be adapted to fit a classroom of thirty kids, or a homeschooled group of three. Even board games exist, such as Robot Turtles or Code Monkey Island, which can teach kids the basics of computer programming without ever touching a computer.

Exposure to even just a few unplugged activities in elementary or middle school can encourage students to be interested in and study computer science in high school and beyond. After students realize they can understand abstract concepts in fun ways, the confidence in their ability to learn more computer science will shhot through the roof. Check out these three links below to get started!

Binary Code Activity by csunplugged: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6vHZ95XDwU

Sorting Networks Activity by csunplugged: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30WcPnvfiKE

Introduction to Programming by Thinkersmith: https://csedweek.org/files/CSEDrobotics.pdf