Scratching over the Holidays

For the past few weeks I have been working on helping my kids better understand what I do at work everyday, i.e. programming. Admittedly I do not not program everyday but they will have years to learn about other topics such as organizational politics and communication overload , so no reason to start on those topics yet and besides my eldest son has always shown a high degree of interest in computers and the workings behind them.

Keep in mind that my kids are fairly young to understand programming concepts. My two eldest are 4 and 6. You cannot have high expectations at that age for programming but just provide them the knowledge and the tools so that their creative minds can go to work & have fun and that is what I attempted to do.

Before diving into the details of this programming experiment below, for those just interested in the end product of our holiday weekend, the “Thor’s Christmas Feast” project, click on the following image.

Thor's Christmas Feast

Thor's Christmas Feast

Where to Start?
First question you are confronted with when attempting to show your kids how to program are “what tools to use?” I knew C++ would be out of the question and considered what I could do with Java or ActionScript. I then did the next logical thing, I Googled the topic (kids & programming) and eventually came across some very interesting tools, which I hadn’t heard about before; Scratch and Alice. After a brief look at both I decided to start with Scratch and later try out Alice.

Note: For parents with older kids I also came across another excellent resource, “Java Programming for Kids, Parents, and Grandparents,” written by Yakov Fain.

What is Scratch?
Scratch is a programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab to help young people learn how to develop computer programs. The development of Scratch (and its name) was supposedly inspired by the scratching process that DJs use to create new sounds and music by rubbing old-style vinyl records back and forth on record turntables, creating new and distinctively different sound out of something that exists. Similarly scratch projects allow young developers to mix together graphics and sounds, using them in new and creative ways.

Technically Scratch is an interpreted dynamic visual programming language based on and implemented in a derivative of Smalltalk, called Squeak (hmmm.. need to play around with that as well). Being dynamic, Scratch allows code to be changed even as programs are running. As a visual language, Scratch does not involve writing code in the traditional sense; instead, you write “code” by dragging and dropping component blocks onto a graphical editor (Hey, Sounds like LiveCycle;-).

Developing a Lesson Plan
Admittedly, I am not a teacher and know little about the process of education, however like most parents I am driven to learn more about education both to help me communicate with my kid’s teachers at school and to help my kids learn at home as well. If anyone has any good recommendations on resources, please forward them to me!

My first step in teaching my kids programming concepts in Scratch was to write a list of goals to attain:
1) Learn the Scratch terminology and Environment
2) Co-develop a program to make our dogs bark
3) Co-develop a program to make our dogs spin
4) Have them write a program by themselves
5) Co-develop a game and publish it to the Scratch WebSite

Goal 1 – The Scratch Terminology & Environment
First we talked about this computer program called Scratch which allows you, a Computer Programmer, to write programs such as video games. Next, we discussed the primary concepts within Scratch of a Stage and Sprites. Technically the stage is the area in the Scratch IDE, located in the upper right hand side, where your Scratch applications execute. For my kids, however, the stage is the area where all the Sprite pictures play with one another. Then we opened up Scratch and identified the purpose of the various panels in it as shown below.

  1. The Stage: Place for Sprites (i.e. pictures of things) to play with one another
  2. Sprite List: Panel for selecting a Sprite to work with
  3. Code Blocks: The top panel is a set of Category buttons. You can see different types of blocks by clicking on different categories. Code Blocks are what computer programmers use to tell Sprites what to do. The color coding for the various categories seemed to help my kids immensely when referring back to categories of code blocks.
  4. Script Area: Technically the place where you compose programs by assembling code blocks. but for my kids its the place you move blocks to tell Sprites what to do.
  5. The Flag and Stop buttons: The two primary buttons for starting and stopping Scratch applications respectively.

This part went fairly smooth and after a few sessions of messing around my kids quickly picked up on the concepts of Stage, Sprite, Block, Script, etc…. By pulling up some of the sample apps such as Pong they learned how the Flag and Stop buttons worked while having a bit of fun as well.

Goals 2 & 3 – Co-Developing Applications
After learning the environment and trying some samples we set off to create our own very basic Scratch applications. I have to admit that I initially didn’t get it as to why a Kids programming language should be so media centric (yeah I am a little slow like that), but after seeing my kids interact with Scratch it became much more clearer to me. One of the nicest things I saw with the Scratch was that it personalized the development experience in new ways by making it easy for my kids to add personalized content and actively participate in the development process. Not only could they develop abstract programs to do mindless things with a Cat or a box, etc… but they could add THEIR own pictures and THEIR own voices to the Scratch environment which has given them hours of fun and driven them to learn. Awesome Job to the Scratch dev team!

Anyway, over a few sessions I sat in the drivers seat while the kids and I worked on making Thor, our English Bulldog, bark and spin.

Goal 4 – Have the Kids Write a Program Themselves

For this one both of the kids chose to make Thor Bark. Now the interesting thing for me here was the differences in my two kids. For my older son it probably took about half an hour for me and him to walk through creating a scratch application with Thor barking. He clearly knew what he was doing and needed to be done (We had done it several times with me in the drivers seat), but he was more interested in the process of creating the app than the actual end result, so he ended up asking me TONS of questions along the way (e.g. Why do Sprites need commands? What if I use the move Block instead?, etc….). My younger son on the other hand cared little about the process, but definitely wanted to see the end result. He managed to complete the program in a couple of minutes with little direction from me with the anticipation of hearing him self say “WUFF” repeatedly πŸ˜‰

Another interesting point here was that I noticed that this was the first time that my younger son had learned how to drag and drop an object on a computer (in this case blocks onto the script area), that was the bulk of my help to him here. I was amazed how quickly he learned to do it and how quickly it seemed to become second nature (now compare that to his Grandparents, thats a different story πŸ˜‰

Here is the source code for the Bark application.

Bark Script

Bark Script

This script simply tells a Sprite (named Thor in this case) to make a sound “Wuff” when the Flag is clicked. Simple aye?

Goal 5 – Co-develop a game and publish it to the Scratch WebSite
Okkk…. Now it was MY time to Shine!! I quickly grabbed back the drivers seat and went on to create an actual game in Scratch (The inner geek acting in me). The kids helped me to pick the theme (once again dog related). We decided to make a game where our dog Thor was eating all the goodies (Candy, Cookies, and Cake). Realize that my kids have a lot of experience with getting tackled by this 40 lb brute if they ever dare to venture around the floor with food in their hands. The boys learned this harsh lesson early on, but my daughter (age 1) is still in the learning process unfortunately.

My 6 year old did the Wuff sound for the game, while my younger son came up with the idea of making Thor get “fatter” as he ate more food and “smaller” as he missed food. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sit and watch me develop the program because well, it took me to long (couple of hours at most). I think it only took that long due to the learning curve I had with Scratch myself. In the and I was pleased with the end result (My wife was not so impressed). While I found scratch lacking in some ways (lack of functions, re-use, objects, encapsulation, polymorphism, etc…) the composition capabilities where impressive and the ways it dealt with expressions and variables visually. Moreover, building parallel threads in Scratch came naturally to the point that you weren’t even aware that you were doing it, which is the first time I can say I have seen that in an IDE.

Finally, another great aspect of the Scratch experience was the ease with which it enables you to publish and share code through a Scratch hosted service. You can find tons of great applications and examples at –> This was yet another great lesson for the kids. They can investigate games out their on scratch and easily download the source and see how it works. Now I don’t think my kids quite grasp all of that yet, nor do they quite know the process of downloading the code themselves and opening it within the Scratch IDE, but I see it as a great foundation for working in a more open and collaborative development environment.


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