Using Flappy Bird (or other games if you didn’t download it in time) to teach computational thinking

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There is perhaps some confusion that the new Computing curriculum is exclusively about programming… it isn’t. The new curriculum is about getting pupils to think, and specifically, getting pupils to think computationally.

Computational thinking is something people do not computers (computers can’t think). It is a way of thinking that uses concepts and theories from computer science to solve problems. 

One aspect of computational thinking is thinking algorithmically. An algorithm is a sequence of instructions and/or set of rules and pupils who are thinking algorithmically are:

  • are able to break down tasks into a sequence of steps and understand the importance of the order of the sequence

  • are able to ‘think through’ and predict the outcome of an algorithm (logical reasoning)

  • can evaluate and modify algorithms if they aren’t functioning as desired (debug)

At Key Stage 2:

  • can incorporate algorithmic concepts such as selection and repetition

Words in bold appear in National Curriculum. 


One way to develop pupils’ algorithmic thinking skills is to use apps/games such as Flappy Bird in ‘unplugged’ activities (computing without technology). Pupils can make predictions about the outcomes of their actions when playing these games or be challenged to spot the algorithms used to program the games e.g. When the screen is touched Flappy bird flies upwards, or, When the bird hits the pipes then the game ends (both examples of selection)

Pupils could act out the games using drama and screen shots from the game bringing the algorithms to life and could introduce their own additional algorithms to alter the game: When the bird flies through two pipes then score a bonus point, for example.

Another important computational thinking skill is decomposition, which is the process of breaking down a problem into smaller subproblems to make it easier to solve. A great task is to ask pupils to decompose games such as Flappy Bird, or Angry Birds, into a set of smaller subproblems that a programmer may tackle when creating the game. In doing this you realise how simple some games are and how they can be created using the fundamental programming concepts covered at Key Stage 1 & 2.

E.g. For Flappy Bird there are only really four parts to the entire game, using either selection or repetition:

The game starts scrolling (repetition) when start is pushed (selection)

Flappy Bird flies upwards when the screen is touched (selection) and falls downwards at any other time (repetition)

The player scores a point when Flappy Bird flies through a pipe (selection)

The game ends when flappy bird hits the pipe or ground (selection)


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