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What is Scratch and why should I encourage my kid to use it?

Scratch is a drag and drop programming language. This means that instead of typing in commands to make a program, kids use blocks of code and chain them together to make original and fun games. The benefits of drag and drop programming are that kids don’t need to memorize a bunch of commands, there is very little debugging and kids learn complex material in a fun and easy context.

Commodore 64 screen
My old Commodore 64 screen

No need to memorize commands

Are you old enough to remember when computers were just blank screens with a prompt? You had to know which commands were needed to do a task. These days, computers usually look like a desktop with icons for all the programs that you need ready to be clicked on. When you open programs, all the commands are in familiar drop-down menus. Makes using a computer a lot easier, doesn’t it?

Well, Scratch is to coding what Windows was to operating systems. It puts all of the options into categorized lists so that you can easily find what you need without memorizing commands.



Very little debugging

Coding can be frustrating. Kids have very little patience. That is why until the creation of drag-and-drop programming, these two things simply did not go well together. These days, however, kids can code with very little debugging.

To be clear, let’s distinguish between two types of errors. The first, let's call them malformed code, are when there is a typo, the command is entered incorrectly, etc. These types of errors are eliminated with Scratch because the commands used by the kids are not entered by the kids. This means no scouring over code for hours looking for the error only to find that a period was in the wrong place or the name of a variable should have started with a lower-case letter not a capital letter.

The second type of error is when the commands are used correctly but it does not give the desired result. And it is a good thing that these remain in the Scratch environment, because kids learn a lot through trial and error and seeing how changes in their scripts affect the outcome. Scratch is a place where kids can experiment without the fear of breaking anything.

Making a listener in Scratch
Making a listener in Scratch

It gives the kids a context to learn computational thinking

When you learn computational thinking, you are learning it in a very complex context. Take listeners for example. These are blocks of code that make the computer repeatedly check to see if an action has occurred (a key being pressed, for example). Now, for Scratch users, creating a listener is as simple as using an if conditional (if key pressed… do stuff) inside a forever loop. The forever loop will ensure that the computer keeps checking that to see if the key has been pressed. This is logic on a level that young kids can understand.

When I learned listeners, it was in the context of JavaScript, the Document Object Model and the webpage elements I was attaching the listener to. I can tell you that it would have been much easier had I had the fundamental training using Scratch first and then moved onto how to achieve this goal.


Conclusion

So basically, Scratch provides a safe playground for your kids to play around with the mechanics of game development. A place where they will learn about how computers work their way through a list of instructions. A place where they will learn about how loops and functions and listeners help us achieve these goals. And, most importantly, a place to learn about how to look at a problem, break it down into smaller, easier problems and then solve them one by one until the big problem is no more. Now tell me that is not a skill everybody needs to learn.



 

Quick facts about Scratch:

  • 92 million projects shared

  • over 82 million users

  • has its own wiki

  • has a built-in paint editor and sound editor

  • first released to public in 2007

  • the name comes from DJs - scratchers 'remix' projects just like DJ's remix music

Try Scratch for yourself here.



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