How can one explain technology in a way for small kids to understand?
Our technology for kids lessons started with the building of this paper laptop (you’l find there the free computer printable template). If you haven’t seen that yet, go on and have a look and then come back here to read more about how I explained all the technical gadgets to my 4 and 6 year old kids.
We started our technology for kids session by looking at a laptop and discovering the “pieces” it is made of: A screen, a keyboard and something under the keyboard that is full of holes. So we went deeper to understand what is under the keyboard. I didn’t want to disassemble the laptop to show the kids what’s inside so we worked with pictures. this and this image work well to show that there are many things under the keyboard. We didn’t get into details. The aim was for them to see that there are MANY things inside.
Then I asked them if they’d like to know more about some of these things and how they all work together to make a computer work.
At that point I had them enthusiastic about learning about computers and that was the start of a long discovery play together. We discussed about hardware and software. I used the comparison to a child and a school to explain the operating system. And from there we went on to learn about the Fan that keeps everything cool, the bossy CPU, the helpful RAM, the Hard Disk that remembers everything, the GPU that controls the screen and the ROM to remember the important stuff.
We took it of course step by step.
As a start, I wanted them to understand that you need some hardware in place before you can install the software. From there I went into explaining the Operating System. And to make it easier for them to understand, I made an analogy to a child and the school he goes to.
We discussed also that schools can be in different languages. Just like schools have different languages, computers can have different Operating Systems. And just like kids going to school in different languages, computers with different operating systems will have it harder to talk to each other.
At this point I wanted to get on with the assembly of their computers and have them discover the different components and put them in place. Keeping the analogy to the child and the school, our conversation went a bit like this:
“Can a baby go to school?” I asked.
“NO” They answered fast.
“Why not?” I asked again.
“Because a baby cannot talk and it cannot walk,” said Victoria, “and it cannot go to the toilet! And you cannot go to school if you have a diaper!” said Lukas.
“So a baby is not ready to go to school. It needs to grow. Right?”
“That’s also the case for our computer. Before we can do anything we need to help it grow”
“How do we do that?” they asked.
“Well…how do babies grow?”
“They eat” said Victoria.
“Right, we give them to eat!” I said “Well, we cannot really give a computer to eat, can we?”
“NOOOOOOoooooo” they said laughing with me.
“But we can give them some components, like these ones we have right here“- and I pointed to the components on our printed page.”That’s how computers grow”
While the kids were cutting out the components, I googled for the pictures of these different components and we all watched the pictures and discussed about what they do and made our choices about which one is which. And then they glued it all.
“Mommy, what is this?” Lukas asked pointing to the fan.
“It’s a fan, it helps to keep everything cool inside the computer. Because all these components you put in there to help the computer grow, they get warm when they work all together and if they are not cooled down they break” I explained, while I rubbed my hand very fast against his arm to show him how it gets warm.
“So the fan blows some wind on them to help them cool down.” and I blew some wind on him. “You felt how the wind cooled you down?”
“That’s how a fan works“. I paused and then I continued. “And you know what? The fan makes noise. Do you want to try and hear it?”
“Put your year against my computer and see if you can hear it“
And so they did, they listened to both sides of the computer and found the place where the noise was coming from and concluded that that’s where the fan must be. They were delighted!
“What about my phone, do you think it also has a fan?” I asked.
“Yes” they said together.
“Ok, then listen and try to find it.” I told them.
And then they listened and listened. But smartphones and tablets have no fans so they could not hear anything.
“I can’t hear anything!” said Lukas.
“Then maybe it has no fan.” I said.
“But then it will break!” Lukas said with a genuine worry in his voice.
So I explained him that the tablets and phones are less strong and less smart than the computers. So their components don’t work as hard that’s why they don’t get so hot. So they don’t need a fan to cool the down.
Then we continued talking about the computer components they needed to assemble their computer.
To stay in the same kid & school environment, we compared the Hard Disk with a big cupboard where the computer keeps everything. Like a big wardrobe where a kid would keep everything from clothes to toys to … everything.
And we compared the RAM with a smaller cupboard where things like underclothes and favorite toys would be kept so you can get to them faster and you would not have to search through the whole wardrobe full of pullovers and jackets and toys … and you name it! So the RAM helps the computer find faster the things that you’re using more often. That was the analogy I used, but here’s another great analogy for you.
Then I explained that the CPU (central processing unit) is like the brain. It is the boss and likes to tell everyone what to do, and he is very good at it. Because without it the computer would get confused.
“How would you function if your brain would not tell your hand to bring the food to your mouth? Maybe it would get into your nose.” I said.
“Ha ha ha” the kids were having a good time. And I knew that they were learning because that’s the best way to learn, when you enjoy yourself.
With the GPU (graphic processing unit), I was short. I just told them that it helps the computer to show us nice movies, pictures and even the games they play on the tablet.
The ROM was a bit of a hard nut to crack, so while they were busy cutting I told them I need to look online for more information and once I understand I’ll explain it to them. In the end I compared the ROM to a small Hard Drive cupboard with the only difference that the things that are in the ROM cupboard cannot be taken out and changed. You can only look at them. For example as a kid grows, you might take away the small clothes from the Hard Drive cupboard and replace them with bigger clothes. But no matter how much a child grows, his or her name or date of birth will stay the same. So the computer keeps all this information that is not changing in a special cupboard called ROM. So that it can remember it forever.
We discussed about all these while they were cutting and gluing the components for their laptop. And when all the components were in place we concluded that their laptop was not a baby any more and was ready to go to school and start learning.
“The computer schools are called Operating Systems. And the funny thing is that the computer doesn’t go to school. It’s the school that comes to the computer. That is why we need to install an operating system on our computer” I explained.
“And how do we do that?” Victoria asked.
“Well …. we’ll just put a sticker on the computer that shows at what school it went”
Then we looked at the stickers on my computer and checked the back of our iPad and saw that these devices went to different schools.
So I asked the kids: “Do you think the tablet can speak to my computer?”
No … they have been to different schools so they don’t speak the same language Victoria said.
“Probably one speaks Romanian and the other one Dutch” Lukas added
“I think you are right” I answered.
“Now you have to decide to which school you want your computer to go to, so which operating system to install”
“I want to go to the same school as mommy’s computer” said Victoria.
“Me too,” Lukas added, “I want that my computer can speak with your computer.”
So they both glued the windows operating system on the keyboard and they continued the assembly of their paper computer.