Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Is "Scratch" The New LOGO?

As a lifelong programmer I've been anxious to see if my children will follow in my footsteps.  I've often daydreamed about bringing the programming language to them, something very animation heavy done entirely in shapes and colors (since they are all too young to meaningfully even read yet).  Well I certainly don't have the time to go creating new languages (my kids will probably outgrow it before I'm done anyway), but thankfully there are people at MIT working on exactly this problem.  This week they're getting lots of press for "Scratch", their new free programming environment for kids.  I've got it loaded up right now, and it's actually pretty cool.

Folks who've been programming since they were kids may remember LOGO, the language where you moved a turtle around a screen with commands like "Forward 10, turn right, pen down" and so on.  Those are all still here.  Scratch is a bit heavier on the sprites and animation than I remember Logo being, and it even includes a paint program so you can make your own sprites.  Make a couple of versions of your figure, then with a simple "Forever->Next Sprite" loop, you've got animation.  Nice.

The kit comes with a number of games of varying complexity.  This is awesome.  Anybody that learned to program as a kid will tell you that the best thing to do was to get the source code to a game and start changing the variables.  I remember typing in code from something called More BASIC Computer Games.  I used to hang out at the local Radio Shack before I got my own computer.  With Scratch you can do the same thing.  Only now the source code isn't so much about the reading and the typing, it's more about snapping together the blocks ala Legos.  You do still need to read - the blocks have words on them - but you don't really need to type it all in yourself.  There's even a simple green flag to run it and a red stop sign to stop it, so if dad has to help the kids put the program together, they can still work it themselves.

I haven't gotten my kids in front of it yet but I hope to as soon as I can.  They're always intrigued when I have something new to show them on the computer.  The question will be whether they're interested in actually modifying the games, or just trying to play them. We shall see!


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