Feature Story

Playing Games In School

A novel program called "Scratch" is inspiring kids to learn

By Elizabeth Corcoran

Many parents of adolescents curse the electronic games that soak up their kids' time and energy. But 12-year old Chris Rybicki gets plenty of encouragement to spend time on games—at least when he's building them with a program called "Scratch." Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Scratch is a three-year old project that aims to transform education by giving kids the tools to build and develop their own computer games and multimedia projects.

Games? At a time when we worry about kids' ability to read and write?
American kids are already awash in digital media, spending an average of more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week with a potent mixture of digitally delivered music, television, computers and games. Legions of government officials are wringing their hands over U.S. students' lackluster results in standardized tests. According to the most recent results from The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. eighth graders rank 11th in the world in science and 9th in math.

But drilling students on math and science facts, contend a growing chorus of educators, won't significantly improve those scores-- nor will it help students find jobs when they finish school. Instead schools need to put math and science skills into context.

That doesn't mean endlessly entertaining students. In the past many so-called "educational" programs have been as passive as watching YouTube. By contrast, "Scratch was conceived with the idea of empowering kids to be media creators," says Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a doctoral candidate at MIT who has helped lead the Scratch program since it was officially released in May 2007.

Scratch is a downloadable set of tools that anyone can use to create digital games and animated movies. After a Scratch user builds a game, he or she can send it to the MIT website where anyone can try it out, offer comments and even improve on it. More than 600,000 people have Scratch accounts; they've built 1.3 million projects. The program is particularly popular in the 12- to 13-year old set. A third of Scratch users are girls. And although most of those students use Scratch at home or in after-school programs, teachers are also starting to use Scratch in the classroom to teach everything from math to ecology. 

"What else do kids learn in school that you want them to teach their neighborhood friends?"

Karen Randall, who now teaches at Paul and Shelia Wellstone Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., started using Scratch with students when it was still a prototype. "We helped find the bugs in the program," she recalls. Students loved taking part in the product development, she says. Along the way, they learned that technology was not a magic box but something that they could control.

When she previously taught at St. Paul's Expo Elementary magnet school, Randall encouraged students to use Scratch to demonstrate the concepts they were studying. For instance, one year Randall asked her students to use Scratch to explain the idea of complementary angles. If she had given them a multiple-choice test, some might just guess at the answers. In Scratch, the students came up with creative ways to show they understood the concept.  

Could the students just make a poster? Sure, Randall replies. But she sees an intriguing difference between paper-based and Scratch projects: Ask students to draw pictures and those with poor motor skills simply shut down. By contrast, students relish learning from one another in a computer environment. "It's fascinating," she says. "In about four weeks, they go from saying, 'I can't do it,' to seeing each other as resources and building amazing designs."

For 7th grader Chris Rybicki, sharing Scratch projects is a central part of what makes it "cool." "It's fun to collaborate with others and to see what's new," he says.  

Rybicki admires the flashes of inspiration he sees from his fellow Scratch gamemakers in the galleries on the Scratch website.

Others are beginning to follow Scratch's lead. For instance Sam Animation is a free program developed at Tufts University that enables students to design stop- motion animation projects. Microsoft has built Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for Microsoft's Xbox game platform.

Monroy-Hernández's team at MIT is now working on a Web-based version of Scratch. That might make Scratch easier to use on some of the aging computers that schools have—but would also require more high-speed access. Nearly all U.S. primary and secondary schools report having some Internet connectivity. But about 78% of the schools that have received federal support for Internet connectivity say they need faster connections to keep up with the demand of students and teachers for online educational resources.  

The buzz that goes with learning Scratch is palpable, Randall says: kids go home and teach other kids in their neighborhood about it, she says. "What else do kids learn in school that you want them to teach their neighborhood friends?"