scratch kids

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

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.

Scratch @ MIT 2010 Day 2 and 3

This is a picture of the the Event Space, the main presentation space. Besides the obviously very high ceiling, the room is laid out diagonally. It works. A simple idea. Brilliantly executed. The building really is designed (by Fumihiko Maki) with function in mind. Loneliness is failed Solitude

I find the most value at the conference not at the workshops and how-to sessions, but the more general education related sessions. Day 2 KeyNote by Sherry Turkle, Henry Jenkins and Marina Bers was great. Turkle presented her latest thought on the importance of Solitude. This frankly scares me. She has pointed out with our new constantly connected, constantly fed (with information) environment, would teens (and adults) know now to be alone? Not knowing the value of solitude, when one creates, and engage in deep self development, teens will be increasingly dependent on shallow casual interactions. Their phones become the center of their lives. They move from "I have a feeling; id' like to make a call" to "I want to have a feeling; I need to make a call."

Turkle ends with an encouraging note -- Do not use the word "Addiction" when talking about this connected world. Addiction implies that we want to get rid of the cause. We will not and cannot get rid of the Internet.  While many people falls into the fallacy that we are stuck with the current state, the Internet is actually very young. We can learn to live with it.

Referencing Thoreau, she encourages us to not live thickly - "Just because we have the net we do not have to live thickly".

Side Note: A funny moment at the start of her presentation, when Turkle says "you know when I say phone, I don't mean phone". Of course, she meant the smart phone/device that is used for texting, running apps connecting to facebooks, and seldom for realtime phone conversation.

2.0 is a Business Model, not a Pedagogy

Jenkins pointed out that the participatory culture is not new. Facebook is not the first social network. While Jenkin's studies often reference the fan fiction culture, there are many more examples. A "good" participatory community is not a pure consuming community. The "hanging around" group consume content, but also communicate with each other. The "Messing about" group contributes with self-expression and self-actualization. The "Geeking out" group tinkers and create for the community. A participatory community allows experts and beginners share a common interest and help each other.

"Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready, and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued."

BYOB for No Ceiling Computer Science Education

Brian Harvey gave a short presentation on Day 2, and a long one on Day 3 on BYOB, the CMU developed variation of Scratch that has list of lists and "procedures" which turn Scratch into almost visual Scheme. Given these new first order data object, one can program much more advance concepts using BYOB.

Technically BYOB is brilliant and I can't wait to use it. Politically they are working hard with the core Scratch team to find a way to incorporate BYOB into Scratch. Harvey is extremely sensitive to no wanting to split the Scratch community into the beginners and the advanced users. I hope they find a way to do this as BYOB clearly is a good thing.

Useful Software Finds

By talking with different people in different disciplines, often from different parts of the world, I found a few new software and web projects that are of interest:

  • Animationish -- flipbook type of desktop app
  • mind42 - a free online mind mapping tool
  • prezi -- a web based and desktop presentation software with a twist

3 year old is programming Scratch sprite

It happened. Once they discovered the drawing tool for sprite, they are all over drawing. "The Art Thing" the three year old calls it. She doodle some lines, and then want to make it move. I showed her once or twice that she needs the "flag" orange block and the "loop block" first, then stuff it with some motion blocks. The only thing that she has to remember to add is the "bounce if edge" block. After only a few tries she can assemble a basic "repeat forever, move, turn, move" type of scripts herself for all her sprites. One interesting thing is that she wants to keep adding sprites, so now her program has some fifteen sprites on it, all dancing around the stage. I asked her to draw more complicated sprites and use less of them, but she won't have it. She like to keep creating new ones, and the messy screen is appealing to her. For some reason, the four year old is less interested in the whole thing.

I have a video of her "programming" that I'll have to upload soon.

Scratch with Young Children

This is a first of a long series of post, documenting my "experiment" of introducing and using Scratch with two young kids, G, a four year old boy and M a three year old girl. First introduction

Taking in all I have learnt from other educators, I first introduce the Scratch environment simply by showing them the program. Since (unfortunately) both are familiar with games, they immediate ask whether it is a game and what game can they play. I redirected that by telling them that these building blocks like Legos that they can use to build things. I prep the workspace with several sound blocks, and the start block. I have to explain that since there is a green flag on the start block, it means if you build the blocks under the green flag, then press the green flag, you can see what you have made.

The Lego analogy works and the four year old very soon refer to his creation as a "tower". That held his interest for a little while but he keeps asking for what games can I do. We switched to the sprite drawing tool, since he loves to draw. He drew a car. So I decided to intervene and put in a little script to make the car move across the screen. Then I ask him to draw more cars and we ended up with a simple "racing game". Pressing the green flag and the cars glide across the screen with a randomized time, "racing".

That little game held his interest for about 10 minutes. Then he is distracted and went to do something else. I then added a sound sensing feature so that when you shout "go" (or anything) the race starts. Both kids got interested and played with it for a few more minutes then left.

Lessons learn: Lego analogy works fine. Still searching for a way to get them interested.