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Articles

Very Young Programmers

The New York Times

By Lisa Guernsey

Ten years ago, a computer programming language called Scratch emerged from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using colorful stackable icons to represent the sequencing and logic of computer code, Scratch was designed to make programming easy for children 8 and older. Today the free program is used in more than 150 countries and thousands of schools, with more than 1,500 animations and games uploaded to theonline Scratch community each day. Even third and fourth graders call themselves coders.

But who says that 8 is the youngest you can teach children how to program? Now there is Scratch Jr. for children still learning to read and tie their shoes.

Designed for children in kindergarten through second grade, Scratch Jr. is not yet available to the public, though its founders are preparing for an iPad version in 2014. This school year, they are evaluating how it works in a handful of classrooms in Massachusetts. The project is led by Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor in the department of child development at Tufts University, and Mitchel Resnick, Scratch’s founder at the M.I.T. Media Lab.

Last year, kindergartners at the Jewish Community Day School in Boston used Scratch Jr. once a week to display collages and play animations about what they learned. In one case, they created an online project about the biblical plague of the locusts, programming computers to show the insects landing on a tree’s leafy branches, which suddenly went bare.

Dr. Bers calls programming “a language of expression,” making it a natural fit for the early years when children are learning how to express themselves. Her work started with wooden blocks covered in bar-coded stickers that could be “read” by a computer. Her team at Tufts has also been testing a robotic prototype called KIWI (Kids Invent With Imagination) and a programming language called Cherp (Creative Hybrid Environment for Robotic Programming) in the Boston Public Schools.

Boosting computer science in public education is now the subject of a national campaign, with celebrities like will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas and the actor Ashton Kutcher championing the importance of learning to program.

A petition on the Web site for Code.org, an advocacy group, stating that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn to code, has attracted around 780,000 digital signatures.

Most of the support for student coding on Code.org is from advocates focusing on middle and high school students, yet “the earlier you catch them, the better off they are,” said Claire Caine, an information technology instructor at the Jewish Community Day School. Before age 8 or 9, she said, children are less likely to be swayed by stereotypes. “The idea that they might not be good at something hasn’t entered their mind yet,” Ms. Caine said.

“But,” Dr. Bers said, “you have to get the interface right.” For example, in Scratch Jr., children can code scenes in which characters utter words in cartoonlike thought bubbles — and that may entice children to try to read them — but programming the computer to advance the scene’s action does not require that children know how to read.

 

For the full text of this article, see the story on The New York Times website.

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