Introducing Programming to Preschoolers

| February 23, 2012 | 15 Comments
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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.

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

“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.)

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

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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  • http://twitter.com/readinginmotion Reading In Motion

    Although children the opportunity to express themselves in a variety of ways is a part of learning and while digital technology is now a part of the lives of our children from the minute they are born, we still need to focus on strong literacy training at these early and critical years.

    • Guest

      What one may need to define – or redefine – is what “literacy” is. 

  • Tyle Stelzig

    I think this is awesome. Programming hugely important and drastically under-taught. For example, I think it is much more important than history (but yes, we should keep history too). 

    Learning how to program also teaches you powerful new ways to think. For example, when communicating with the computer it is not possible to rely on shared context. This forces you to express yourself very clearly, without any vagueness. As another example, there is no reason a 10 year old can’t understand the idea of recursion. And think how much ideas like this could have opened up your intellectual world as a kid! Therefore, I think that exposing kids to programming has the potential to make them much smarter. 

    The education system moves pretty slowly with adopting good new ideas, so I’m not getting too hopeful yet. But I’ll certainly be exposing my children to programming from a young age. (If I did not already know how to program, I would feel that it is my responsibility to learn.) Not so that my children can become programmers, but so that they can understand a huge part of the modern world, and so they can reap the mental advantages the programming offers. 

    • Visionary Hacker

       you do too have shared context when communicating with the computer, it’s just alien.

  • http://twitter.com/jmugan Jonathan Mugan

    I talk about Scratch in my book on teaching kids to be lifelong learners 
    http://jonathanmugan.com/CuriosityCycle/

  • http://www.tedpavlic.com/ Ted Pavlic

    “National Foundation of Science” (in the third paragraph)?? Really? C’mon, KQED. NSF sponsors some of your programs! Get your sponsor’s name right!

    (it really distracts from the story…)

    Why aren’t you reporting about how Logo was taught in elementary schools 25 years ago? It’s interesting that the only way you can manage to teach programming to kids nowadays is if you dumb it down… it’s also interesting that innovative technologies for amateur and even professional programmers learning to program with Android look a lot like these for-kids tools…

    • Craig Knaak

      Dumb up is the way to go ala Wolframm. The real point is to spark interest in a child, to open the door. They’ll walk through and develop further if they know they can control these things. 

    • MindShift

      Thanks for noting that the correct name is National Science Foundation, Ted, and apologies for the distraction. I fixed the error. 

  • Sjfone

    Or a big video game.

  • Visionary Hacker

    Cartoon network’s game creator is very good. My two small children have demonstrated pair programming techniques using it. It encourages a build/test cycle, with a deploy option to exit that loop. No literacy required. Well, just a bit, but nothing you can’t figure out by playing with the various pieces and seeing what they do, which you have to do anyway even if you *can* read the instructions.

  • http://fridayschildmontessori.com/getting-crafty-with-your-children Preschool Arts and crafts

    Really? Could that be possible to teach them programming? What level will it be?

  • Pengee324

    Does my 5 year old really need “executive functioning skills”? How about my child just has some fun and plays in the rain or on the jungle gym?? What happened to simply being a kid??

  • Lawrence

    With ProgrammingKit.com you get practice programming a computer! Kids and adults can have fun moving the bug around and drawing different designs.

    Parents: Ask your child to have the robot bug walk in a pattern
    (square, triangle, etc). Use the grid to count the boxes. Ask your
    child to have the robot bug walk to a particular spot on the screen.
     

  • http://ne1up.com/ Thomas O’Hearn

    Great post. ;)

    I’m a bit of an online entrepreneur and getting into programming myself with the more adult tools like Codecademy and Stencyl…but my 5yo is so interested in what Daddy’s doing, I’ve been looking for good options for her. Scratch looks awesome and I’m downloading it right now, but I REALLY wish they’d hurry on Scratch JR.

    Is there an alternative to Scratch JR since this isn’t available yet? http://ase.tufts.edu/DevTech/ScratchJr/ScratchJrHome.asp

    It seems like these days, with so many startups moving SO fast – there must be someone out there doing something like they are, but faster than MIT is able to?

    I wish they’d at least have an open beta. ;) I’m going to check out a couple referenced in the comments, Cartoon Network’s game creator and Logo.

    Anyway great post!

    Thomas @NE1UP.com

  • http://westerncitizen.blogspot.com/ Wajahat Ali