Developing Leader – e) Physical Computing - Primary Leadership Journey

By Phil Wickins posted 26 days ago


This is the fifth in a series of incremental blogs in the Developing Leader section of the Primary Leadership Journey. Click on the infographic below to navigate between blogs, more will be added as they are written:

02e Physical Computing - Primary Leadership Pathway

Physical computing has got to be my favourite part of the computing curriculum. Thankfully, there are so many accessible options available these days to ensure that even schools with the tightest budget can allow pupils to engage in these exciting projects. When I conducted the Big Primary Computing Leadership Survey, many of you said that Physical Computing was top of your list for subject knowledge areas you felt you needed more CPD in:

So that's exactly what we've done, keep reading to find out more...

Physical computing is a form of engineering; it brings together Science, Maths, DT, Computing and Art in an exciting project based learning experience that children will remember forever. To understand more about this, have a read of the Physical Computing Pedagogy Quick Read. From a teacher’s point of view, some of the best things about it are the cross curricular opportunities it offers. For example, the KS2 computing curriculum states that pupils should be taught to:

• design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts.

Then, if we look in the design technology curriculum, we find that pupils should be taught to:

• understand and use electrical systems in their products [for example, series circuits incorporating switches, bulbs, buzzers and motors]
• apply their understanding of computing to program, monitor and control their products

And last but not least, in science, pupils should be taught to:

• construct a simple electrical circuit, identifying and naming its basic parts, including cells, wires, bulbs, switches and buzzers

Now admittedly, the type of physical computing kit you use may not tick all of those boxes (Crumbles do!), but there is still room for a cross curricular project. If you wanted a place to start, check out the computing units in year 5 – selection in physical computing (using Crumbles) and year 6 – sensing movement (using Micro:bits).

So first, let’s look at the difference between the main 2: Micro:bits and Crumbles. Lego Mindstorms/ Wedo should have a mention here, however there can be considerable costs involved with those products and the NCCE do not include them in their free KIT hire scheme.


 – A microcontroller with an LED array, various input buttons and a pitch adjustable sound module all built in. This means you can plug it into your computer via USB and begin coding straight away. You code via the Makercode online website in a programming environment very similar to Scratch with drag and drop blocks, which means you can code on any device with an internet browser. You can also connect your Micro:bit via bluetooth for example if you are coding on a tablet, however this could be tricky if you are trying to pair 15 Micro:bits to 15 tablets at the start of each lesson!


This is perfect for using in a lesson, then putting them away at the end. If you want quick results and an instant physical input/output experience, then these would be a great choice. You can add external components like motors, but things start to get a bit more complex, requiring bigger battery packs etc. There are a whole host of different projects you can create with them on the BBC Micro:bit website. The NCCE runs a couple of excellent courses on them:

Introduction to the micro:bit in key stage 2 – short course
Programming with the micro:bit – whole day course
Using micro:bits to collect data in school surveys – short course


 – A microcontroller with nothing at all built in, but wires up to a whole host of inputs and outputs. It is designed to get children wiring up circuits (as mentioned in the DT and Science objectives above) and physically building something for them to go in (like a cardboard robot!). Various components (crumbs) can be purchased and used with them e.g. Battery packs (essential), LED’s, switches, buzzers, light sensors, distance sensors, digital displays, motors, servos and more.

Crumble Wiring
This is a slightly different form of physical computing, and lends itself more to a long term cross curricular project. This is the kind where the pupils have a ‘product’ that needs to sit somewhere on the shelf or in a cupboard for the duration of the project, ready to get out and continue working on each week. Due to the fact that these components are separate and require wiring together, children can really go to town with being creative and build fully working robotic systems either from cardboard, plastic, wood, whatever medium you choose. Software requires a download and install (which means it also works offline), and works on PCs, Macs and Chromebooks. Code input to the Crumble is via USB only, no bluetooth.
robots on a shelf
Crumble Monkey

Redfern electronics (buy your Crumbles here) have many exciting project examples for you to be inspired by, and I have recorded a few of my own pupil’s projects for you to see too (including the cute monkey shown above!). More recently, a teacher asked if a Crumble could be used to simulate a flood barrier, a very topical and cross curricular project! This is what I came up with: Crumble – how to simulate a flood barrier.

Again, the NCCE has an excellent course on Crumbles: Physical computing kit - KS2 Crumble - short course.

Crumble Course

Don’t forget, in KS1 Beebots are also a form of Physical Computing, prefect for teaching children about inputs and outputs. Guess what? The NCCE have a course about using those too! Physical computing kits - KS1 BeeBots not to mention KS2 data loggers as well, as all these kits are available in their free class set hire scheme.

So as you can see, the world of physical computing is an exciting one, but you may feel the need for a bit of CPD first. It may look daunting, but once you get started you won’t look back! What kits do you have in your school? What's the best thing your pupils have made? Tell us in the comments!

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