I have been exploring the platform ScratchJr. Since the children I teach are too young for this, and our preschool is intentionally screen-free, I tested out this platform with my own seven-year-old son.
ScratchJr is described as a coding platform for young children where they can “program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects, and express themselves creatively on the computer. ”
The platform is fairly easy to use and navigate, although I would say it wasn’t completely intuitive as far as which buttons to use to create certain sequences. Their website is set up well to offer support and their getting started section explained how best to use the platform. The platform allows children to string commands together as a beginning coding experience. However, I appreciate that it goes beyond coding and allows children to customize the characters and create backgrounds that add to their stories. Rather than focusing solely on linear sequencing, ScratchJr promotes creativity and problem-solving skills as well as math and literacy skills. The use of higher-level thinking, such as problem-solving, creativity, and exploring cause and effect, are higher on the SAMR model, which is the goal of using this type of technology with young students.
The website for ScratchJr asserts that “coding is the new literacy!” The early childhood educator in me bristled at this claim. In an effort to keep an open mind, I read up a bit more on ScratchJr and found this article. Blogger Jelena Aleksov argues that while writing organizes our thoughts and expresses our ideas, coding can do the same. Framed in this way, I can see how coding can be seen as a new type of literacy that would be beneficial for students to learn. However, like traditional literacy, the learning needs to be social, engaging, and developmentally-appropriate. We also need to be able to differentiate the instruction for divergent learners.
ScratchJr seems to support this type of differentiated instruction. There are basic sequencing skills that allow characters to move in a simple fashion. The platform then allows for students to add more levels of complexity, both to the coding itself and to the design of the story. The platform also allows for a lot of testing and problem-solving as students can “run their program” and make changes as needed.
One of the biggest strengths of this platform is that it encourages group collaboration. First, students can share their completed stories with a larger audience. Second, and more importantly in my opinion, is that the creation of the stories can be a collaborative experience. The creators of ScratchJr have a link on their website called creating together to help families “facilitate collaboration when coding with scratch.” This collaboration–with an adult scaffolding the child’s learning–would be the best way to use this platform, as a skilled adult would know how to differentiate the experience for the student. When my son worked on his story, I was able to guide his learning with the coding itself, such as understanding the sequencing, how to connect the codes, and how to adjust the timing between the codes. Additionally, I was able to support his story-telling with guided questions and encouraging him to expand on what the characters could do, such as having a dialogue with each other. In a classroom, a teacher would be able to do this in a small group setting. I would have students work together to create a story with adult guidance. Students collaborating with each other adds another layer to this learning.
ScratchJr has a lot of potential in a classroom. It is also free, which is wonderful for teachers and parents. This platform goes beyond enhancing learning and has the potential to transform a child’s learning. It takes the idea of storytelling, but adds coding, which could not be done without the use of the technology. The technology is not the goal, however. The emphasis is on problem-solving, sequencing, and creativity. Also, since the platform is fun to use, children will not feel like they are learning. Instead, it seems like a story-telling game. Playing games and telling stories come naturally to children and are enjoyable, so this platform engages young children in the learning style that is best suited for them. This is certainly the goal of technology instruction with young children.