Art & algorithms

What do art and algorithms have in common? How fast is a computer? And what are humans good at?


  • Use a long piece of paper. Tape it on the floor. Make sure the kids are wearing protective clothes - this will be messy!

  • You can use a variety of materials: paint, pencils, graphic pens..

  • Choose a limited color palette.

  • If possible, use two days for the activity. This way you can create layers to the artwork.

  • The activity can hold up to 15-20 kids, but works with as little as 1-3.

Running the activity

  • Start by talking with kids about what algorithms are. Explain to them they are now the computer. Each one will get their own algorithm.

  • Examples of algorithms: Draw a dot. Draw a circle around a dot. Draw a line connecting all the red objects. Draw the first letter of your name. Draw squares in two different colors. Draw triangles inside each square.

  • Ask kids to choose a pen and spread them evenly around the paper.

  • When you says RUN, the computer turns on and each kid starts drawing. When you say END each kid stops and moves one stop to their right.

  • Run the "computer" fast and slow. How does the art change? Having music play in the background might also help.

Let the artwork dry for a day. Make the second layer.

  • Let kids come up with their own algorithms. Discuss what makes an algorithm easy to follow. Allow kids to run the computer one at a time. Did the algorithm the kid imagined instructing to others look different in practice? Why?


  • How long would it take for a computer to generate digitally similar piece on an art work given the exact same instructions? Not very long - it could probably do it in nanoseconds. A computer is very good at following instructions and very fast. It would always win humans.

  • What do humans bring? Creativity. Emotion. Interpretation.

  • Ask the kids how the artwork makes them feel? Acknowledge the feelings. Explain that a computer can never experience real feelings - it can be programmed to respond to feelings or to analyze artwork from a database, but it will never experience art the same way humans.

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of specific steps that you can follow to solve a problem. In programming, algorithms are used to create reusable solutions to problems. Search engines like Google or Bing use search and sort algorithms to make it easier for us to find information.


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