With much of the world homeschooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families are trying to figure out curriculum and how to keep kids occupied. We believe that learning should be fun and that optimally it will tap into learners’ interests.
Enter Scratch, from the MIT Media Lab.
This free block-based coding program, aimed at kids 8-16, is fun, easy to use, and encourages learners to explore logic and computational concepts in a highly creative way. We’ve used it to support learners in English language arts, math, social studies, science, art, science, and of course, computer science. It’s open-ended and though it can be simple, more advanced students can create fairly sophisticated programs.
So get ready. I’ll show you how to get started.
There are two ways to access Scratch: the web-based version or the app.
We prefer the online version because sharing projects is a lot of fun! The community guidelines are taken seriously and it’s a safe place for kids to connect with a broader community, check out other projects, and get inspiration.
For the online version go to https://scratch.mit.edu/ and create an account for your child. Don’t use their last name as their username will be published alongside any projects they choose to share with the community. Choosing a name is lots of fun.
If your connectivity is spotty you can download the app. You can share your projects by clicking the three dots.
Scratch Jr., a visual-based (pre-reader) version, is available as an app for kids 5-7.
Learn Some Basics
At the very top of the website, click on the Ideas tab in the main menu. It will bring you to a page full of quick tutorials to get you started. These tutorials are simple and short. They will walk your learner through basic concepts that they can begin exploring right away. We really like that they now include video tutorials, which can be helpful for learners who are auditory or visual learners.
It’s as if the people behind Scratch have given this a lot of thought. They have. It’s been around since 2007 and the newest version, Scratch 3.0, was released in 2019. The Scratch team is active in creating interesting programs and boards to follow too.
I’ve been through all of the tutorials and recommend starting out with the first introduction and then letting your learner pick which one to do next. If they start creating a project and get stuck, they can return to the tutorials. Do them all!
Another way to build your Scratch chops is to remix the starter projects from the Scratch team. Usually learners will play the project first to see how it works. Then they can click “see Project Page” to view the code behind the project or go straight to “Remix” to make their own version.
Another really awesome thing is that you can see the code and remix ANY shared Scratch project. And if you create something you think is cool, you can share it so others can remix it.
But wait! Isn’t copying wrong? Nope! It’s totally legit. Just give credit for the original inspiration and make sure that you mix it up and personalize it in some way.
In this way, we create a stronger coding community. We learn from others and we also give back.
What does this have to do with school?
So how does coding support traditional learning?
There are a lot of mathematical concepts built into the program. Math operators are a class of codes on their own and kids learn core concepts like coordinates, variables, and randomness. For example, if you want a character, known as a sprite, to move, you have to tell it where to move. To do this, we use a graph with X and Y coordinates that are both positive and negative. Kids can even build their own math games, like this basic multiplication quiz game we made.
Interactive storytelling projects engage language arts skills, while also drawing on logic and reinforcing coding concepts. And such projects are one way learners can demonstrate they understand a social studies or science unit. If you’ve ever watched a BrainPop video you know what I mean.
Even Better Than The Real Thing
When kids create a Scratch project, they engage lots of 21st Century skills simultaneously, and they do so in a meaningful and motivating way. When they use a variable, it’s for a real reason needed for their program, not to simply solve for x. They write clear instructions so that others can play their game or engage with their interactive storytelling project, rather than writing to answer a writing prompt from a teacher. They become engaged in their projects.
And when coding Scratch projects, learners engage in the engineering design process, iterating, researching how to do new things, and then going back and adding new features. They can even iterate others’ projects. And it’s a big boost to see when someone iterates their project.
Working this way kids think creatively, problem solve, communicate, analyze, research, iterate. We think it’s a holistic and also differentiated approach to learning.
Even in our group classes when we give a prompt and a starter project as an example, each learner works at their own pace, incorporates their own ideas, adding features they like, creating their own artwork, sound effects, and humor.
This is a beautiful thing!