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Introducing Programming to Preschoolers

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Flickr: AngryJulieMonday

By Heather Chaplin

Since MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group released Scratch in 2007, kids ages 8 to 13 have built more than 2.2 million animations, games, music, videos and stories using the kid-friendly programming language.

Scratch allows kids to snap together graphical blocks of instructions, like Lego bricks, to control sprites—the movable objects that perform actions. Sprites can dance, sing, run and talk.

Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Lifelong Kindergarten is collaborating with Tufts University’s DevTech Research Group to make Scratch Jr, a new version aimed at kids in preschool to second grade. The expected launch date is summer 2012.

The new project raises questions about childhood development and digital learning, and just how early kids should be introduced to computers.

Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group, spearheaded the creation of Scratch. Having worked with a network of afterschool programs using digital media, Resnick was struck by the lack of software that enabled kids to go beyond playing with other people’s media. There was nothing that encouraged them to make their own interactive stories and games.

“What’s most important to me is that young children start to develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control,” Resnick said. “We don’t want kids to see the computer as something where they just browse and click. We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves.”


There’s been a lot of buzz in the last few years about what it means to be literate in the 21st century. To Resnick, teaching kids to program was like teaching children of another generation how to write.

“At one point, there was a growing realization that people needed to learn how to write as well as read,” Resnick said. “They needed to be able to express themselves as well as understand how other people expressed themselves. Now it’s the same with new media. It’s not enough to be able to interact with new technologies; you have to be able to create with new technologies.”

The problem, though, is that programming languages like Java and C++ are difficult to learn. Resnick and his team imagined a language that would be more “tinkerable,“ as he calls it—more accessible. They also wanted the language to encourage kids to create work that was “personally meaningful,” as opposed to simply manipulating numbers. Lastly, they wanted the program to have a social component so kids could share their work and learn from one another.

While Resnick was building Scratch, Marina Bers, a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab, was focusing on younger children, building, among other things, a programming language for robotics aimed at preschool-aged children. Bers would leave MIT for a position at Tufts University, but she and Resnick stayed in touch. In 2010, they decided to partner to develop the Scratch version for a younger audience. Scratch Jr officially kicked off this last summer.

According to Bers, the challenge is creating an interface that very young children can understand. Some of the problems are straightforward, like the fact that Scratch relies on text, and the youngest children cannot yet read.

“I’ve noticed materials online for games aimed at kids pre-K to third grade where there’s this assumption that children are fluent with reading when they’re not,” said Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. “This then becomes an exercise in frustration.”

Bers hopes to solve this problem by replacing the text of Scratch with voice-over instructions.

In focus groups with teachers and children, the Scratch Jr research team has also noticed that younger children struggle with the number of blocks needed to create a program. “The relationship between cause and effect needs to be clearer for this age group,” Bers said. The idea is to reorganize the program so kids can focus on only one thing at a time.

Younger children also have trouble distinguishing between the colors in Scratch, (Scratch Jr will be redone in bright, primary colors), and they struggle with how Scratch moves from top to bottom (Scratch Jr will move from side to side.)

The group has also been studying tutorials in videogames, which teach kids how to play without realizing they’re being taught. “We want to add something like that to Scratch Jr,” Bers said.

For children ages 3 to 8, social interaction is perhaps the most important part of the learning process. That interaction can be with a teacher, a parent, an older sibling or a neighbor, said Guernsey of The New America Foundation, but young children must be able to study the facial expressions and other reactions of this “social partner.”

“The child needs to feel that what they’re learning is important to this other person,” Guernsey said. “Then it will go into the part of the child’s brain stamped ‘important.’”

When learning moves online, this becomes an issue.

“It can be the most wonderful content in the world,” Guernsey said. “But if it’s just slid into their lives without a social partner, then a lot of learning will be lost.”

The challenge isn’t lost on Bers. “We want to promote social interaction,” she said. “The question is, how do we imbed teacher interaction into Scratch Jr?”

Bers thinks of a playground. A good playground will have swing sets and slides for the kids, as well as benches and tables and chairs for the parents. The designers of Scratch Jr are figuring out how to embed the digital equivalent of those tables and chairs.

There are many who blanch at the idea of putting such young children in front of a computer screen. Concern over “screen time” is nothing knew—it began with television. But, according to Ellen Wartella, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, these issues are far more nuanced than most people allow. First of all, she said, there simply isn’t good long-term research to show that being in front of a screen affects children negatively now, or in the future.

“There is no evidence of harm, although there are a lot of complaints,” she said.

Wartella isn’t saying screen time is good for children at a young age. Rather, she’s saying there isn’t good evidence yet to say it’s bad. There are no high-quality long-term studies that show that too much screen time as a 3-year-old will have direct consequences when he or she is 4 or 14. And in past research on TV screen time, it’s hard to untangle the effects of other influences, like parents and income.

One mistake people make, Wartella said, is focusing on the fact of the screen itself rather than the content of what the screen is showing. “Is it bad for kids to Skype with Grandma? I don’t think anyone would say that.”

Both Wartell and Guernsey refer to “the three Cs,” when considering these issues: content, context and the child. The question isn’t whether it is inherently good or bad when a preschooler is given a videogame. Rather, the questions should be contextual: Is the child playing with a social partner or on her own? What is the educational value of the game? And what are the needs of the particular child?

“When people worry about screen time, it’s the substitution effect they’re really worried about,” Guernsey said. “What happens when a kid is so enraptured by screen activity that they won’t go outside to play in other ways? But screen time being harmful by itself, there’s no evidence of that.”

For Bers and Resnick, it comes back to preparing children to be literate—in all the ways literacy is perceived today. For real empowerment in a world flooded with digital media, people need to understand not only how to interact with it, but how to make media themselves. Teaching children as young as 5 how to program not only teaches important executive functioning skills, which is crucial for that age group, but also helps demystify the computer, Bers said.

“Computers for most people are black boxes,” she said. “I believe kids should understand objects are ‘smart’ not because they’re just smart, but because someone programmed them to be smart.

“Also,” she said, echoing Resnick, “it’s about expression. In our times, we need kids to be able to express ideas in different ways, and learning to work in Scratch, in a computational medium, will give them another way of expressing themselves.”


The post originally appeared on Spotlight for Digital Media & Learning.

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