Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
My name is Amanda Strawhacker and I’m a researcher at the Developmental Technologies Research Group. I earned my Master’s Degree in Child Development here with Prof. Marina Bers, and now I work full time as a Research Analyst.
How did you first get involved with ScratchJr?
I joined the ScratchJr project in its fourth year (it is a five-year research project). I had already spent some time at the DevTech lab researching programming and robotics interventions in early childhood settings, and I was interested in the research going on using ScratchJr in classrooms as a storytelling and expressive tool. I joined the project as a research coordinator and worked closely with our Tufts and MIT researchers, as well as our developers the Playful Invention Company (PICo), to modify and design the app in direct response the needs and experiences of the Kindergarten, first, and second grade children at our collaborating school sites.
What led to the development of the ScratchJr app?
The ScratchJr app was the result of collaboration between the two co-Primary Investigators of the project, Prof. Marina Bers and Prof. Mitchel Resnick. Mitchel’s team at MIT has had great success with the Scratch programming environment (www.scratch.mit.edu) for children ages 8 and up. Marina was inspired by the engagement, dedication, and creativity that children exhibited when programming with Scratch, and wanted to bring that kind of excitement to a platform for even younger children (ages 5-7 years). Marina and Mitchel collaborated with teachers, parents and children to investigate what elements of Scratch are developmentally inappropriate for young children and what new changes would be beneficial. The current app design is the culmination of that research.
What would you say are the core differences between the app and the main version of Scratch that make it more suited to younger students?
Our research shows that while the complexity of most computer programming languages is developmentally inappropriate for young children, the concepts of programming (sequencing, cause and effect, estimation and prediction, etc.) are not. The main design goal of ScratchJr was to limit the visual complexity of the interface. Scratch programming blocks use text descriptions to explain their function. In ScratchJr, we removed the text and opted for visually simple blocks, with large, clear images, so that “move 10 steps” is now just an arrow. We also reduced the number of programming blocks (and features), and we changed the math so that the program primarily uses small positive integers (avoiding large numbers and decimals). This was to ensure the children weren’t being challenged by math concepts that they would not learn until 3rd grade or later.
However, you can do a lot of the same programming in both Scratch and ScratchJr. My favorite example is programming a character jump. In Scratch, jump requires a very complex program to simulate gravity, specify how high and long the jump will be, and set a start and end point for the jumping character. In ScratchJr, we included a “jump” block that achieves the same action using only one block.
In the UK, ICT lessons are being rebranded as Computing from this September, with a major focus on coding. Why is it important to get kids involved in programming so young these days?
Foundational programming concepts are not so different from other developing skills for 5-7 year old children. Sequences of instructions, logical order of events, and cause and effect are all practiced in early childhood classrooms already. That’s what children are practicing when they learn to order objects by shape, size, and color, tie their shoes by following a set of instructions, or retell the events of their day from beginning to end. Introducing programming concepts to children early can help them develop metacognitive skills and think about their own thinking. It’s also important to teach children that the digital world around them is not magic. If they can understand programming, then they can become creators instead of consumers of digital content.
Your app is suggested for 5-7 year olds but is there really a bottom line? Could preschoolers interact with Scratch Jr successfully?
Every child is different. Some Preschoolers have successfully used the app, and at the other end of the spectrum we’ve heard from some people that they want to use SJr with older children and even adults. We recommend that children use the app with an adult, at least the first time, to make sure they are getting the best experience for them.
Do you think apps like ScratchJr can be harnessed effectively as a part of cross-curricular, project based learning?
Absolutely, yes. ScratchJr is an open-ended tool – more of a playground than a playpen to introduce programming. We designed it so that it could be used more like a box of crayons than a paint-by-numbers activity. Several of our pilot curriculum units and collaborating schools successfully use ScratchJr as part of community and identity units, math or literacy curricula, and as a self-expressive free play tool.
How can educators keep up to date with the latest Scratch developments, projects and ideas?
The best way is to join our mailing list (linked from the ScratchJr.org website). We also regularly update our website, scratchjr.org, and you can join the conversation on Twitter by searching for #ScratchJr. You can also join the ScratchJr for Android Beta Testers Google+ Community at http://www.scratchjr.org/android.html
What's next for ScratchJr?
Our next big goal is an Android release of the app by the end of 2014. People interested in beta testing should join our elist! Many more updates and new versions are planned for the coming months. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we are fortunate to have a supportive community that believes in our vision of empowering young children through learning to code and coding to learn.
Amanda it's been a privilege to speak with you, thanks for making time for us. Scratch Jr is superb and we wish you continued success with the project.