Teaching kids coding: What comes after Scratch?

crunchzillaI’ve long struggled with the question of where to take kids after teaching them Scratch and am finally feeling I see way forward.

Scratch is absolutely wonderful for teaching younger kids programming. Not only does it not require extensive typing, it’s very forgiving and can quickly be used to make some rewarding games. Importantly the basic principles in Scratch transfer nicely to more complex languages. And Scratch can be used to put together some pretty sophisticated stuff. But there are limitations when compared to more developed languages, not least is the restriction on running inside the Scratch environment.

Last year for my high school class we moved a group on to learning Python using  the excellent Grok Learning; but that comes with its own problems. The biggest limitation we found was simply that Python is so massively textual that it’s hard to find projects that really capture the students’ imagination. Grok did a great job of making little projects entertaining as a learning exercise, but that doesn’t translate into the sort of projects the kids are keen to pursue themselves. We tried using Pygame but there are many limitations with it – far too many for where our kids found themselves.

This year we’re trying a different approach and teaching Javascript. Javascript is device independent, free, can be learnt at many levels, can quickly make rewarding web pages or games, and is backed by a welter of resources on the web. The use of HTML5’s canvas means that you can create full graphical games in a relatively straightforward manner – and ones which work on any platform. Getting the kids up to being able to replicate what they were doing in Scratch doesn’t look like too big a task. Finally Javascript is more forgiving on minor issues such as indenting than Python and yet teaches fully-fledged programming concepts that will translate easily into learning Python or C later. It can even by used to program scripts in Unity 3D, although this is something we’ve only given a cursory look so far.

Once we’d started down the Javascript route we cast around for a self-guided approach suitable for kids. There are a few self-guided options but many of them are more suited to adults learning approaches they will use in a job. Then we came across Crunchzilla. Crunchzilla offers three levels of guided Javascript learning focused entirely on graphics. The pitch is good, the exercises interesting and the pace seems to work so far. It does rely on the students having some dedication in that there are no checkpoints to stop you progressing until you’ve mastered earlier materials. So a student can simply skip to the end – but we’re in a club context when the students are giving up their free time to learn coding, so they cheat only themselves by skipping. Crunchzilla, backed up by some challenges and additional explanation, looks like a great foundation and a truly viable step onward from Scratch.

This has been a fascinating journey and a doubt we’re at the final answer yet. I’m feeling pretty good about this stage though.

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