Coding: The New Literacy

I’ve always been a fan of a good startup. About a year ago, I supported the Spinn Coffee startup, investing in their product and getting priority shipment (although I’m still waiting for it, ha!). While I’m not necessarily anti big corporations, I feel that a lot of individual thought and progressive attitudes can be easily stifled within a traditional corporate structure. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed following the developments of smaller companies, especially those with ambitious and progressive visions whose mission statements are simple and easy to relate to. Helping Spinn develop was a no-brainer for me, as is encouraging the further development of the Scratch Jr app.

ScratchJr, is a visual programming language designed to introduce coding skills to children ages 5–7. By creating projects in Scratch Jr, students can learn to think creatively and reason systematically, despite not being able to read. It is available as a free app for iOS and Android.

Scratch Jr is a derivative of the Scratch language, which has been used by over 10 million people worldwide. Coding in Scratch requires basic reading skills, however, so the creators saw a need for another language which would provide a simplified way to learn coding at a younger age and without any reading required.

The History of Scratch Jr

Scratch Jr was developed by the MIT Media Lab (the same people that developed the Scratch engine back in 2001) in cooperation with Tufts University and The Playful Invention Company. It was granted a $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation as well as donations from Adobe, Lego Corporation, and a number of other companies interested in children’s education. They also raised $77,474 USD by 1,384 backers on Kickstarter.

The initial release was launched in July 2014 for iPad and March 2015 for Android. There is also a version called PBS Kids ScratchJr, which was released in partnership with PBS Kids in 2015. This version has sprites and backgrounds drawn from popular children’s animated series such as “Nature Cat” and “Wild Kratts”.

Coding: The New Literacy

Children create code in objects called sprites – which can be characters or things. ScratchJr comes with a library of sprites, and sprites can be edited or new ones created using the “Paint Editor”.

Code is created by dragging blocks into a coding area and snapping them together. All the blocks are completely icon-based (no text) which is how children can use this language before they can read. Blocks are connected from left to right, like words.

The user interface is much simpler than that of Scratch. Both the number of categories of programming blocks and the number of blocks within each category have been reduced, so that only most basic ones were retained.

In addition to sprites, kids can add backgrounds to projects, to give them a setting and atmosphere. Each background is treated like a page in a book, and has its own set of sprites. A project can have a maximum of 4 backgrounds.


Scratch Jr. in the Classroom

Scratch Jr

By snapping together graphical programming blocks, children can make characters move, jump, dance, and sing. In the process, children learn to solve problems, design projects, and express themselves creatively on the computer. They also use math and language in a meaningful and motivating context, supporting the development of early-childhood numeracy and literacy. With Scratch Jr, children don’t just learn to code, they code to learn.

This means that before students can even read, they can be taught to think and problem-solve using coding. Children can, in essence, code before they read.

The classroom applications for this methodology are endless and, frankly, intriguing! I know I will be using this app in my classrooms, even though my students are a tad older than the recommended 5-7 age group.

Stay tooned for my Scratch Jr experiences, and let me know of any similar experiences you’ve had in your classrooms!

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