Can Kindergarteners Be Taught to Code? ScratchJr Says Yes

A new computer programming app can teach basic coding skills even to the youngest students — including Kindergarteners.

The app, ScratchJr, was created by researchers at the MIT Media Lab, Tufts University, and Playful Invention Company, so that children who cannot even read yet can learn coding skills through interactive games and stories.

“When many people think of computer programming, they think of something very sophisticated,” says co-developer Michel Resnick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But we don’t think it has to be that way.”

ScratchJr allows users to connect programming blocks that will make different characters move, jump, talk and even change size.  Users can use the paint editor to create unique characters within the game, adding their own voices or other sounds, and even their own photos.  They then use the programming blocks to bring their characters to life.

According to co-developer Marina Umaschi Bers, research has shown that by the fourth grade, children already have developed internal ideas concerning how skilled they are at math, science and technology.

“So most programs that introduce coding in fourth grade and up, it’s great, but they are coming kind of late to the party,” she says.

The National Science Foundation funded the project through a $1.3 million grant in an effort to help children learn to think creatively and reason systematically.

The app was inspired by MIT Media Lab’s Scratch programming language in use across the world by children 8 and over.  The interface was redesigned to coordinate with younger children’s cognitive, personal, social and emotional development.

“We don’t want necessarily every young child to become a computer scientist or to work as an engineer, but we want every young child to be exposed to these new ways of thinking that coding makes possible,” Bers said.

One parent, happy with the results offered from the app, tweeted:

“Amelia just spent 2 hours programming on ‪#ScratchJr Now she’s late with her homework (when programming is more fun than maths…)”

Launched in July for iPads, the app, which is offered free of charge, is already in use in Kindergarten classrooms at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School in Medford, MA.  Teachers across the nation are encouraged to sign up for a ScratchJr Pilot Research Program.

Developers are currently working on creating a mobile version for smartphones as well as a web version.  Curriculum and support materials for parents and teachers are in the works.

“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.”