With New App, Young Children Learn Important Skills as They Program Stories and Games

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Katie Cinnamond Benoit

Can children learn to code at the same age they’re learning to tie their shoes?

That’s the idea behind ScratchJr, a free iPad app released this week by researchers at the MIT Media Lab, Tufts University, and Playful Invention Company (PICO).

With ScratchJr (scratchjr.org), children ages five to seven can program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn how to create and express themselves with the computer, not just interact with it.

"As young children code with ScratchJr, they develop design and problem-solving skills that are foundational for later academic success," said Marina Umaschi Bers, professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts, and director of the Tufts’ Development Technologies research group, which co-developed ScratchJr. "And by using math and language in a meaningful context, they develop early-childhood numeracy and literacy."

ScratchJr was inspired by the popular Scratch programming language (scratch.mit.edu), developed by the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group and used by millions of young people (ages eight and up) around the world. The ScratchJr team redesigned the interface and programming language to match young children’s cognitive, personal, social, and emotional development. Even children who have not yet learned to read can create projects with ScratchJr.

"Coding is the new literacy," said Mitchel Resnick, MIT Professor of Learning Research and head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group. "Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding. In the past, coding was seen as too difficult for most people. But we think coding should be for everyone, just like writing."

To program in ScratchJr, children snap together graphical blocks to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing. Children can modify characters in the paint editor, add their own voices and sounds, even insert photos of themselves – then use the programming blocks make their characters come to life.

The teams at Tufts, the MIT Media Lab, and PICO collaborated on the design, development, and evaluation of the ScratchJr software. Now that the iPad app is available, the teams will turn their attention to developing versions for other platforms (such as Android), adding new features for sharing ScratchJr projects, and developing curriculum and support materials for teachers and parents.

The ScratchJr project received funding from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1118664), Code-to-Learn Foundation, LEGO Foundation, British Telecommunications, and a successful Kickstarter campaign.

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About the MIT Media LabThe Media Lab is a place where the future is created, not just imagined. The Lab applies unorthodox research approaches for envisioning the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life -- technologies that promise to fundamentally transform our most basic notions of human capabilities. Unconstrained by traditional disciplines, Lab designers, engineers, artists, and scientists work atelier-style, conducting more than 350 projects across 25 research groups that range from digital approaches for treating neurological disorders, to new tools for learning, to innovative modes of transportation for sustainable cities. Lab researchers foster a unique culture of learning-by-creating, developing technologies that empower people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all societies, to design and invent new possibilities for themselves and their communities.  More information on the Media Lab can be found at: www.media.mit.edu.

About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

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