Teaching Younger Kids Programming using Scratch

IMG_3452Learning to code is all the rage these days.  While I do not completely agree with teaching programming for programming sake, I strongly believe that computational thinking is a crucial skills for children growing up in the 21st century. Scratch from MIT is a platform designed to effectively teach kids, including college students, computational thinking via programming using Scratch. But how young can you start? After running after school Scratch classes for a few years with K-6 kids, this is what I found about getting younger, 6 -7 years old, to use Scratch:

Attention Span

Any parents of a 6 years old can tell you, getting a 6 years old to sit down and focus for more than 20 minutes is difficult. Doing scratch at home actually is easier as there are less distraction. But do not count on being able to create a large Scratch project on one sitting.

Reading Skill


Scratch is very visual, and most basic blocks are color and shape coded. So one does not have to be able to read all the text on the blocks to use them. However it can get slightly frustrating if a child cannot find the blocks that she wants to use. One way to help is to prepare some basic blocks that the child may need, either by dragging them into the scratch area, or by printing them out on a piece of paper so that the child can just visually try to match the blocks.

Explain and re-enforce the color coding scheme: Block for movements, purple for looks (say blocks), etc will help.

Writing Skill

Similarly, if the child is going to have her characters say things (which is a good idea), she needs to be able to type, and spell. Some children gets frustrated, especially if they are aware that they “need” to spell the words correctly, when typing. Most often the parents get more frustrated as they see their children struggle to spell. My recommendation? Does not matter. What’s wrong with a character saying “trhjhirj ffweg3sffs” !!?

Mousing Skill

This can be a problem. Scratch is very much drag and drop. Depending on the amount and type of computer usage the child already has, using the mouse can be challenging. Drawing with the mouse is another skill that a child may not have developed. Here, Macs and one button mouse have an advantage. But a child will learn very quickly.


For younger kids, sometimes just drawing sprites using the built in costume editor is fun enough. In a Scratch class, I usually get one younger kids that end up just using Scratch for drawing 90% of the time, and that’s fine.

Story Telling

The next step from drawing can be just adding say and wait blocks to their sprites. This way, one or two characters in a Scratch project can act out scenes, sometimes from their favorite book or TV (yikes) shows. At least this makes the child a digit content creator instead of a content consumer.

Scratch Cards

The Scratch team at MIT created a series of one page handouts called Scratch Cards. They are designed as mini activities that can be used in Scratch workshops. Because the activities are short, and usually the blocks are printed on the cards, they can be a great resource for quickly doing some project in Scratch. It always, always bug me that they do not just sell physical versions of these cards. Instead you need to download the PDF, print and laminate them. But they are very useful.


A great way to learn Scratch, and it is built into the philosophy of Scratch, is to learn from each other by remixing each other’s project. Remixing is built into the Scratch platform. The only downside of learning by remixing is that often a child will get caught up looking for fun games to play on the Scratch website and forgets to remix. Especially for younger children some supervision is advised.



Lego sells a set of kits under the name WeDo that can be programmed using Scratch or their own software. I highly recommend this as another activity for learning to use Scratch. Unfortunately all the cool Lego stuff are only available from their education division. ( )But individuals can buy directly from them. The kits are expensive, but they are good. One small catch right now is that the new version of Scratch, because it is web based, does not yet work with WeDo. So you have to use the older version (1.4) if you want to use WeDo. See some examples in this video, pass the 2 minutes mark.

Learning to Learn

So there you have it. I have seen many young kids starting off struggling with Scratch at 5 or 6 years old, and turned into a very competent Scratchers in one or two years. The skills and fun they acquired make it all worth it. One of the most important skills a child can acquire is to learn to learn:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” - Alvin Toffler

Why naming your child Hashtag is a bad idea

#FAILED By know you have read the news, some parent named their new born baby girl Hashtag. This is a really bad idea but not for what you think. It is not that the child may be teased, or confused, or her future cost of therapy. The reason that this is a bad idea is ironic:

If the parents named their child hashtag because they like social media, the name actually completely disadvantaged their child in social media. What do you the child can use as a name in her online identities? dashtag may well be a reserved word. How about her personal brand? I would suggest "". Because if I were to look for her, and perform a web search for "hashtag smith", do you think I will find her easily? Or would I get a thousand result pages talking hashtag the social media term instead?

Values, Vision and Life Experience

P090412PS-0695 Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC 2012 was amazing. No doubt about it. So many inspiring lines. So personal. So positive. Thinking through the speech and re-reading the transcript, if I have to pull out one line from the speech, this is the one:

But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as President, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.

Not everyone is going to be President, but it is so truth that one is guided by one's values, vision and life experiences. So as parents, those are the things that we need to give our children.

Back to Lexington

In the PK's tradition of making important announcements on April's First, it is now semi-public knowledge that I am giving up the city living and heading back to the burbs. At this point I only wished I kept my last house in Lexington. Instead it is now a delicately timed project of selling, renting and buying, in some order between Boston and Lexington. I know I am really going to miss living in the South End. At this point the kiddos are half complaining about leaving "the best house ever". But then they have never had a backyard, nor a private driveway, nor a school that actually has a playground and ball field attached. The pros and cons have already been analyzed in this other blog post. I won't repeat it here. But it is a large part a financial decision. Having stared at risk assessments for over a year while developing WealthMate, the financial implications are getting to me. Also, it seems that, while we are still in the East coast, why not give the kids a bit of the typical American suburban life experience.

Talent from Understanding


What is Talent? Do I have it? How do I get it? This is an often asked question. My son attends the Boston Ballet School. His teacher, a well loved and well known teacher, Luciano, recently explained his thought on talent. My students parents often ask me, "Does my little Holly have talent in Ballet?" he said. His answer is right on:

Talent is a Gift

Some say talent is a gift. There is some truth to that. Having the right body type, or the right physical ability, helps. Especially with something like Ballet. However having the gift sometimes make the student works less hard. Pay less attention. Things come too easily. In the long term, having the gift along is not going to translate to success. In fact, if managed wrong, it could hurt.

Talent from Practice

Practice makes perfect. The Russian ballet schools sometimes share this philosophy. Talent from repetition. Again, there are some truth to this view. But repetition alone is not going to make your great.

Talent from Understanding

70% of talent is going to come from understanding. It is coming from your head. You need to understand why something is done, understand how your body works, understand the ecosystem of your particular field. With understanding, you will know how to leverage your gift. With understanding you will know what to monitor during practice. What do you need to improve.

I totally agree with this view. It goes far beyond ballet, or music, or tai chi. Try it yourself.

Apple Retail Store Staff is the new role model?

The battery in my 8 month old Mac Book Pro seems to be broken. I scheduled a late night appointment at the only Retail store in Boston, near my loft. 25 minutes later, I walked away with a replacement battery and a smile on my face. Those Apple guys and women are oh so nice. They are courteous, professional, passionate, and fun. The Apple Genius handled my MBP with more care then me. The counter staff were friendly and helpful. On my way home one of the staff was heading back to the store, recognized me and said good night. If you were a parent, and your teenager grows up and behave with such manners, professionalism, and people skills, wouldn't you be proud?

Disclaimer -- I have been to other suburb Apple store within a mall and the staff there are definitely not as good. Perhaps it's a urban twenty-something thing here at the flagship store. So at least make those the role models.

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