Scratch is a free programming language and online community where you can create your own interactive stories, games, and animations. It’s created by MIT. I had heard of it years ago from the founder of the company who created my first PragmaticMom blog template. His young son was using it to create games. My son was just a toddler then, so I filed it away in the back of my head for later.
Fast forward to now. My 9-year-old son is a serious gamer and in on screens from the minute he wakes up until I yell at him at night to get off screens. It’s very tough to keep him off screens because he floats from the computer to the iPad to his DSi to the TV and back again. Sometimes he even multi-tasks watching TV WHILE eating WHILE playing a game on the computer. Don’t even get me started about the keyboard to that computer. It’s covered in crumbs and barely works; it’s so gunked up.
My son’s friends are similar gaming fanatics and we, the moms, combat their gaming mania by forcing them outdoors to play sports. We’ve set up a book club for them as well. We got the brainstorm to get them programming to create games of their own as an antidote to gaming. It’s still screen time, but it feels better as a parent to have them creating then just zombied out playing games.
I found this wonderful high school student named Izzy Brand through the Science Club. He is the only person at our local high school who is capable of teaching computer programming to kids. Apparently, he’s so advanced that he is taking a MOOC (Massive Online Open Class) class on programming though Harvard. And it just so happened to begin with Scratch which I think he learned as a kid.
So he dusted off his Scratch skills and comes once a week to teach 6 third grade boys to program in Scratch. Thank goodness we have a tutor because I have no idea how to even download Scratch! And the boys need someone to guide them through the game creation process.
Izzy is brilliantly organized. He started by setting up DropBox so that each boy had his own folder with Scratch and a document where he can ask Izzy questions if he gets stuck. It took about 45 minutes to set this up on 6 computers. Then he showed them the basics of how Scratch worked.
Here he is demonstrating:
Learning to Program in Scratch: Lesson 1
Izzy demonstrates the basics of Scratch using a few of the buttons. Once the boys learned these basics elements, they were off to the races programming their own games. It was remarkable!
And the boys were able to come up with a very simple game after that by working on their own at home during the week. Here’s my son’s first game.
My Son’s Scratch Game After One Lesson
This basic game was just after one lesson but included using “sprites” which are predrawn characters provided by Scratch as well as using a drawing program to make your own (note the green dragon). My son also learned how to make the characters move which is a wonderful introduction to the logic of programming in that every single movement needs to be specified in your program.
But, oh what a difference a few weeks makes! After a few weeks, my son created a more advanced game by basing it on a model that Izzy created to demonstrate to them. They can see his programming via the DropBox file and try to replicate it.
Izzy’s sample games that he created for the boys to then make was a great way to demonstrate how to use Scratch. The coding gets a little more complicated but the boys can refer to Izzy’s program to see how he did it if they get stuck. They can also ask him questions via the DropBox document or at their lesson if they want their game to go beyond his.
You drag the purple programming commands to the right to create your own Scratch program. Some of the pieces allow you to change the setting. For example, you can set by number of seconds how fast you want your character to move.
My Son’s Scratch Game After Five Lessons
In this game, my son changes the backdrop for each level. He also changed his game to make the paratroopers fall down faster with each level.
One interesting thing my son taught me was how to make the paratrooper lose his parachute when he/she is shot down. You do a “costume change.” Costume one is the paratrooper with the parachute. Costume two is the paratrooper without the parachute. Then you program the costume change to occur when the bullet hits the paratrooper. I have no idea how to do that though!
Getting six small squirrely boys to focus is also a feat. We are in the thick of winter here in Boston so the boys usually don’t get much outside time before the class begins. Izzy established Rules of Behavior that the boys all agreed to since there is only one of him and six of them, all asking questions and demanding his attention at the same time.
Scratch is a wonderful way to introduce kids to programming because it is object-oriented and only requires them to drag and drop the code they need. They don’t actually have to write code but they learn the complexity of logical thinking required to get a computer program to do something that seems relatively easy like having a cannon turn to the right or the left. It’s the perfect first step because creating a game easy and immediate. The boys, by using DropBox, can also play each other’s games.
If you are not techy like us, you might want to find a local college student to help teach a group of kids Scratch. It’s unusual for a high school Junior to know as much as Izzy. You also might be able to find someone to do lessons via Skype if you don’t have a college near by.
How to Teach Kids Scratch Resources
- Amy Mascott of Teach Mama told me about The Hour of Code. It’s a website that offers a K-8 Introduction to Computer Programming class which takes about 15-25 hours.
- Pamela Price of Red White and Grew recommended this book for kids learning Scratch as well as checking out Code.org.
Have you checked out the resources in the educator’s forum for Scratch? It’s on the website. There was a curriculum guide that helped a little but what our son REALLY loved is this book, Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program By Making Cool Games. He read it on my iPad and started making all kinds of things.
- Here’s a site called Learn Scratch that might be helpful.
- Here is a series of YouTube videos on learning Scratch.
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