Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch

I’ve been teaching Scratch to my students lately, and it’s made me remember just how much I enjoy dabbling with programming.  I’m really not much of a code monkey, but I do enjoy writing programs, telling the computer what I want it to do, and then having that feeling of mastery when it actually does what I tell it to do!

I heard a lot about Scratch before I actually started using it myself… people kept telling me how good it was, but for some reason I never really got around to trying it myself.  When I finally did take a look at it, I couldn’t believe I waited so long to check it out!  It’s a GREAT piece of software that all kids should spend some time learning how to use.  I’d encourage you to NOT make the same mistake I did, and wait so long before looking at it.

I taught myself to write computer programs back in the 80s on a second hand Commodore Pet computer.  It used a form of BASIC, the same language used on the original Apple II computers, and I thought learning to program was the coolest thing ever. Being able to write instructions into a computer and get it to do stuff was a real buzz for me… a geeky buzz to be sure, but a buzz nonetheless.  🙂

Over the past 20 years I’ve taught quite a lot of programming to children and without fail it’s something they get a real kick out of.  They really seem to engage with the big ideas of programming – problem solving, thinking mathematically and using logic and reasoning. It’s the practical application of those ideas and the creative thinking required to solve authentic problems that forms the basis of a truly engaging learning experience.  While I don’t believe that everyone necessarily needs to become a computer programmer, I do think that everyone would benefit from learning the basic skills and mental gymnastics required to write simple computer programs.  I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful skill, and the underlying understanding it gives into computers and how they do what they do has come in really handy over the years.

Scratch takes all of the essential programming constructs like sequencing, conditional branching, control structures, data manipulations, etc, and wraps them in a very friendly, very easy to use environment that even the youngest students can use with just a little knowledge.  It’s quite intuitive to learn and you can do simple things fairly easily, yet there is really no limit as to how far you take it.  Don’t be like me and hear about it but do nothing… download a copy now, give it to your kids and watch the magic happen.

For this year’s K12 Online Conference I did a presentation about Scratch, called Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch.  It’s trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into a small space, since the presentations are capped at 20 minutes, but I think it’s a reasonable introduction to some of the key ideas behind Scratch.

As you can see in the unscripted footage of the kids towards the end of the video, they talk about solving their own problems and figuring out how to work things out for themselves… to me this is what real learning should be all about.  Watch the clip of the two girls working out what the variables should be in order to make the sprite move exactly the way they want, the engagement on their faces, and the expression of triumph when it finally works the way they want… as Lexie says, “Scratch brings out your inner awesomeness!”  I think she’s right.

There was so much more I wanted to include in this video, but I simply couldn’t squeeze it all in.  Instead, I’m going to add some further resources at www.chrisbetcher.com/scratch, so drop by and take a peek at what’s there (It’s a bit of a work in progress, but it’s an open wiki so feel free to add anything you think might be useful!)

K12 Online 2010

CC BY-SA 4.0 Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

59 Replies to “Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch”

  1. Hi Chris. I came across your K12 online presentation and website today. I’ve been working with my grade 4-8 gifted class with scratch for about a month. Your presentation opened up a whole world of possibilities for us. I recently moved to the gifted program from teaching early primary for about 9 years. I’m also a musician and podcaster, so I’m trying to incorporate as much tech and media as I can in my program. I believe your site will be an excellent resource for me.

  2. Barb and Sean,

    Thanks for the positive feedback. It’s really rewarding when I hear that someone else did in fact find some value in what I’ve made. The thought that others can find something we make useful, then use it, build upon it and continue to share it is something that I think motivates many of us.

    It would be neat to form some connections between classrooms where the kids work with Scratch and collaborate together on some projects.


  3. I use Scratch and Alice to teach middle / high school Intro to Programming. The kids love Scratch but I have yet to find a good set of lessons / book to use. I bought the available books and they don’t have project suggestions (which the Alice book written by the people who wrote Alice does have). I am so busy that I am struggling to come up with ideas on my own. I am going over to your site to see if you have anything that will help me.

    1. Yes, I think what I’d like to have is a really good set of problems that are suitably Scratch-solvable. I don’t really need to get lessons in How To Scratch… the web is full of those and really, the kids will figure that stuff out anyway.

      What I really want is a decent collection of graded challenges that I can give them to work on. A set of problems of varying degrees of difficulty that they can work through to uncover the basics of problem solving on their own.

      Anyone know of such a thing.

      1. Yes – that’s exactly what I want. I will pay for something like that!! I agree, Scratch is very easy to learn so lessons aren’t a problem. And in my current class I have some kids who are way ahead of the rest and I am struggling to keep them challenged.

        1. How hard could it be…

          If I were to arrange a thinktank with some experienced Scratchers would you like to join in? I’m suggesting we brainstormm up some ideas that have worked for people in the past, as well as some new and original ideas… just a list of suggested challenges that we can give kids to work on.

          You in?

  4. What a great presentation. I teach 2nd grade (age 7) and I’m getting ipads in the next week or 2. I am looking forward to trying some basic programming with them to help with following directions. The cards are a great idea so they have something visual to follow. If anyone else is programming with kids this young, let me know how it’s going!

    1. Hi Jen,

      I just need to clarify two points…

      The Scratch app on the iPad is just a viewer, not actually the Scratch programming environment. With it, you can browse the projects stored online at the Scratch website and interact with them, however you can’t actually write Scratch code with the iPad app.

      Secondly, I was told yesterday that the Scratch iPad app has been removed from the App Store, so unless you already have it from an earlier download (as I do) then you probably won’t be able to get it anymore… Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

      Let me know how you go with the younger kids though, as I haven’t tried it with kids as young as 7, but I’d love to hear how they go with it! Good luck…


      1. Well that’s too bad! I do appreciate you telling me, though because otherwise I would be thinking I was missing some obvious step that couldn’t find the app. We can’t download Scratch onto our
        district computers, so I guess I will have to wait for some other alternative to present itself.
        In any case, my own kids are having fun with it at home.

        1. You can’t download Scratch on the school computers??? That’s just crazy.

          It annoys me to hear stories of school districts managing their technology in ways that are convenient for the IT guys, rather than thinking about what might be required by the students. I wouldn’t let that one go until I had it solved, but that’s just me…

          I did read somewhere recently that Scratch 2.0 is due for release fairly soon and that it would be a version that can run entirely in the browser. I’m not sure how that will all work, but it might be a useful solution for people such as yourself who face installation problems… let’s just hope they don’t block access to the online version of Scratch as well!

          Good luck!

  5. Really sorry I missed your session in Shanghai. Enjoyed your post!
    We have been using Scratch at our school for a few years and the kids have had a lot of fun playing with Scratch. Some students are asking their teachers if they can use Scratch instead of powerpoint and other tools when creating presentations.
    We use game creation in grade eight and that is always a high interest unit and the kids have created some great games. Also have used line art as a way to have students explore repetition. Will make sure to come back to the wiki!

    1. Thanks Gary. Shanghai was so much fun! And it was nice that a few people suggested Scratch as an unconference session… it helped me think about what to include in the K12 preso!

      The timing for my K12 Online presentation was quite a challenge this year… I nominated to submit that Scratch presentation several months ago and when I finally got the notification that it had been accepted I was very pleased… until I saw the date for submitting the finished video was due two days after I got back from my overseas travelling. With travel to China, Vietnam and New Zealand I really had no idea when I would be able to actually make the video in order to submit it by the due date!

      Thankfully, the kids at school were keen to help out with their part of the video, and I somehow managed to squeeze it all together at the end… but getting to run through some of the vague ideas about what I was planning to include during the unconference session in Shanghai helped a lot…

      So there you go… now you know the backstory of the preso, and you don’t need to worry about missing it in Shanghai because the video covered most of it anyway! 🙂

      Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Just watched your preso and enjoyed it. I have used it with 7th and 8th graders. Actually we did a project with Gary’s class creating games together and are planning another one this year.

    Last year I used tutorials (found here https://valleywoodtech.wikispaces.com/Scratch) that were powerpoint slides of step by step instructions. Students had to complete and show me their finished product. What I really liked about your video was it sounds like you gave them less information and challenged them to figure out how to solve it on their own.

    I would like to know more details about how you teach it. What resources do you give students? Do you teach them all at the same time or let them go at their own pace? How much structure/help do you provide and how much do you leave them on their own?

    As far as goals go I think once you teach some basic concepts then turn them loose on designing their own game.

    1. Thanks Mike… It’s an interesting question you raise, and I think that tools like Scratch provide opportunities to not only change the way we let kids learn, but to also be a little more reflective about the methods we use to teach…

      As teachers, I think we’re sometimes tempted to try and “teach” Scratch (and other things as well) by coming up with a bunch of clever lesson ideas and taking the kids through the basic skills that (I feel) they ought to know. (and by “we” I mean me!)

      But then the little devil that sits on my shoulder slaps me upside the head and says “Stop that! This is all about constructivist learning! Get out of their way you micromanager, you!” And so I try to get out of their way and let them discover things for themselves…

      Teaching is (I believe) all about finding that sweet spot between “teaching them” and “letting them learn”. There are some things that kids won’t work out on their own, or at least will take far too long getting to a point that they could have gotten to much quicker with a bit of wise guidance… so I’m not averse to “teaching” them some basics. I usually start by trying to identify what the elemental skills are… what are the 2 or 3 things that they need to know to start being productive right away? And I’ll try to “teach” those…

      But then I really think we need to get out of the kids’ way and let them learn by doing. We need to give them the space and the opportunity to make mistakes and get some things wrong so they can learn what doing it right might look like. They deserve the right to be left alone to learn…

      Along the way, there are always plenty of teachable moments. If a student does something particularly clever or useful or creative, I would try to gather the class back together for a minute or two and say, “hey look what Susie just did… Susie, can you just share that with the class and tell us how you did it?” And then Susie spends a moment sharing with the class on the large projected screen and explains how she did what she did. Susie is the star, the class learns something, and I’ve allowed learning to take place… every wins.

      I think it works best if I can find the right balance of me explaining stuff, of letting the kids learn on their own, and then finding the pockets of innovation and excellence and creativity that are happening amongst the kids, and then creating the right conditions for sharing that learning.

      For me, I suspect it’s not really about a binary choice of the teacher teaching versus turning the students loose to work on their own, but rather a carefully orchestrated back and forth which aims to create a blurring of those roles so that the classroom is always about fluidly moving between “teaching” and “learning” processes (without necessarily being about “the teacher” versus “the student”. )


  7. I love teaching with Scratch. I do an moral/Aesops fable with my religion teacher. Students have to write a story, using the sprites, and/or any characters they import themselves. Honestly, I show them how to get started, what I expect at the end of the project and then the time to play and experiment. Over many years of doing this project, I have rarely been disappointed by the final product by the students. I have no problem admitting to the students that they will end up knowing more than I do by the end of it. I am happy to help, discuss but I give them the opportunity to explore. I haven’t gone much younger than 7th graders, though. I do feel the program needs a level of maturity to really understand the concept. What other projects have you created?

  8. Thanks for putting together such a great video about Scratch. In the end, you mention that it can be downloaded for the iphone, however, I’m having a hard time finding it in the app store. Do you know what they are calling it?

    1. Hi Leo,

      Unfortunately, after I made the video I found out that the Scratch app had been pulled from the Apple App Store. Had I realised I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but I was unaware at at the time.


      1. Hi Chris loved the video. Watched it but now its not rsponding from wikispaces. Any chance of puuting oin youtube with the others?

        1. Hi John, thanks! That’s weird that it’s not loading! I’ll look into the reason…. I actually don’t know if i still have the original video file, but if I can find it then yes it’s a good idea to add a copy to YouTube. Thanks for the suggestion.

          1. Hi Chris thanks for getting back. I’ve now installed a more recent version of flash and its working again…. Would still be great on Youtube though. Looking fwd to trying some of your ideas with my y7 students.

        2. Hi John,

          That’s odd about it being a Flash problem. It wouldn’t play for me either, so yeah, weird.

          I couldn’t find the master version, of the video but I managed to retrieve a reasonably good version from one of the sites it was previously uploaded to. I pulled it down from there and I’ve now e-uploaded that to YouTube and it’s all good again.

          I remember why I never put it on YT in the first place, it was the 10 minute limit. It was subsequently raised to a 15 minute limit, but the video is 22 minutes and still wouldn’t fit the limit. As a person uploads more and more videos to YouTube and maintains an account “in good standing” (to use their words) free of copyright infringements, etc, they lift some of those limitations. So now I can get it on there.

          Thanks for providing the impetus for doing something that I’ve been meaning to do for a while. 🙂

  9. Is there a text input for scratch? I’m in year 10 and my teacher is teaching us scratch but I’ve already gotten used to text based programming languages such as python. Dragging and dropping seems horribly inefficient. There has to be a better way.

  10. Hi Matthew,

    If you mean does it have anything like a command line input, no, not really. Scratch is designed for younger students and those who are new to the idea of programming, so the main priority in its design is ease of use and ease of construction. The block-based scripting is ideal for the target audience that Scratch is aimed at (very young kids) as it’s easy to assemble scripts from the code blocks, as well as being color coded and easy to follow. Dragging and dropping is perfect for the age group that Scratch is aimed at.

    If you’ve already learned Python, then Scratch would be a bit of a backwards step, programming wise, since it’s really designed to be an introductory language… it’s still interesting to know about though, and your comparison between it and Python means you’re looking at it critically, which is good.

    I’ve done Scratch with Year 11 students with no programming experience at all and they liked it, but if you can already program in more advanced languages, then this is not really designed for you. I think it might be time to have a chat with your teacher and ask that s/he lets you use Python or Dart or some other language that is more aligned to your current ability.

    I’m guessing that you are probably ahead of most of your classmates in this area?

    Good luck and thanks for the comment.


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