Scratching the Surface – Storytelling with Scratch

Scratch, for those who don’t know, is a learn-to-code program designed by the folks at MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten program (which is such a fantastic spirit to embrace). Scratch features a somewhat deranged looking cat and a less-deranged array of color coded blocks that kids can put together like puzzle pieces in order to do some rudimentary coding.

The manic-looking cat from Scratch


One thing I really love about Scratch, and there are many things to love, is that it uses natural language to help kids (and adults too) learn basic coding skills. Concepts like while loops and if statements are written out and color coded so that the programmer can make connections between what’s happening in their code and what they are seeing the rather manic looking cat (seriously, he has problems) do on the screen.

I volunteer at a local museum with a teen group and was showing them Scratch the other day. One of the girls in the group rather astutely asked what this was even good for and why bother to learn to code. Better people than me have expounded upon that topic and talked about the importance of computer literacy skills (see Hour of Code and their associated explanatory video content, for starters). And I regurgitated some of that for her benefit. But I also emphasized, librarian and educator that I am, that coding can be a powerful communication tool. Coding can be a way to create, build, and share ideas and that, to me, is the truly key and empowering thing about learning to use technology, whether or not that involved coding (and that’s also why I think librarians should be at the forefront of advocating for ways to close the digital divide in this country, though more on that later). Not everyone needs to be a coding ninja, but having an understanding of how technologies we use every day work is, I feel, important (see this well-written post on learning to code from DML Central for more).

Scratch, though it may be designed for kids and feature some rather silly looking animated characters, can actually act as a great digital storytelling device for kids and teens.

It can help them explore ways to use code to tell a story and the platform itself is flexible enough to act as a fun, if somewhat kitschy looking, storytelling platform. You can import backgrounds and images to use as characters, include thought bubbles and dialogue, make things move around the screen, add music, and add other visual effects (which actually look less silly than the hats Google Hangouts is doing in beta). And the great part with Scratch is that you can put up your story and freely remix other people’s programs, which helps to teach kids about the creative process as well as more traditional STEM topics like, well, coding.

Scratch is web-based and free and could work really well in libraries, museums, and schools as a way to teach basic coding and have some fun with telling stories on a digital platform. Have you used Scratch before? Share ideas and experiences below and check out the Scratch Educator community for ideas and inspiration.