On Sunday, October 3rd thirty-two volunteers from Teachers College, Columbia University, project leaders Cameron L Fadjo and Carol Lu from the Institute for Learning Technologies, and Emily Zemke, Associate Director of School Partnerships at Teachers College, spent the day sharing Scratch and Lego Mindstorms NXT with over 3,000 children from all walks of life in New York City as one of twenty-five stations at the inaugural Ultimate Block Party. A day of creativity, play, and learning in Central Park, the Ultimate Block Party (UBP) was conceptualized as a way to bring play back into the lives of children and to emphasize the potential for learning through play.
With over 50,000 attendees, the UBP was filled with eager young children and families from throughout the five boroughs of New York City. For Teachers College, Columbia University (TC), the Institute for Learning Technologies, and the Office of School and Community Partnerships at TC, this day was a unique opportunity to share some of the technology-based research currently being conducted in Upper Manhattan (specifically, Harlem and Washington Heights) using Scratch. For the children, however, it was a chance to see something new and exciting for the first time and to experience what it is like to learn through play.
As the project leader for the Scratch station, I had a chance to meet and share Scratch with many different children and families. I asked that two of the volunteers from TC, Catherine Man and Megan Myers, capture some of the unique moments spent with children during the UBP and share their own thoughts on the experience.
On a beautiful day in Central Park, I’m standing with a little boy and his younger sister at our Scratch outpost, where volunteers from Teachers College, Columbia University are showing children how to use the program. Families are buzzing around, checking out all the activities at the Ultimate Block Party, taking pictures with friendly clowns on stilts, and dancing to the loud music blasting from the stage behind us.
I’m showing this pair some simple things they can do to begin making their own interactive stories in Scratch; both seem shy, but the little boy warms up as we drag actions to the scripts area, trying to get a sprite to jump to precise locations on the screen. His sister falls into the background, not completely understanding how we’re doing this but continues to watch intently, until their mother gently reminds him to “give your sister a turn” at the computer. She is so young that I don’t know how much she can read but decided to show her how to make a sprite “talk.” Her eyes lighted up when she clicked on her sprite, and a speech bubble popped up to greet her: “Hello Tess!”
That day, child after child walked up to us responding enthusiastically to the idea of learning how to create their own animations, video games, and stories. I watched as eyes widened to the possibilities this program offered them. Many of the children were too young to have learned about x- and y-axis in school, and yet they seemed to grasp the basics of the concept quickly by manipulating the x and y coordinates in their script blocks that program their sprites to move. By playing with these numbers, they were testing their own predictions about how changes to the script would affect how their stories played out and how their characters could act. I can imagine how empowering it must be to be that young and be able to bring their stories to life.
On Sunday, October 3rd, Teachers College students ran a booth at the Ultimate Block Party where children, ages birth to eleven, could participate in hands-on Scratch demos. Originally, the plan for the event had been to have 15 minute sessions for two children at a time. However, as it turned out, the timing didn’t need to be so strict and we, as volunteers, were generally able to spend as much time on Scratch as they wanted!
In preparation for the event, we were provided with a couple of examples of animations and examples that had been created with Scratch. Additionally, Cameron Fadjo prepared some activity sheets that children could follow to animate a sprite with simple effects. I also prepared a simple game where children moved a sprite to catch balls falling on the screen. Since a lot of the children were quite young (from ages 4 to 7), and the majority of these children were unfamiliar with Scratch, we spent most of the day guiding their experience through Scratch.
At my station, when working with a child, I found myself starting off with the “hook” of asking them if they wanted to play a game. I had them play through the game I’d created and note their score. I then asked them how they would change the game. Frequently, the children came up with very creative and innovative ways to change the game. If necessary, I prompted them by asking what they would do to make the game easier or harder. I would then walk the child through making a change to the game. Most of the time, this change was either to make the character move more slowly, more quickly, or in more directions. (These were changes that were easy to make quickly and easy to explain to the children.) When changing the speed of the character, we generally either doubled or halved the character’s speed. This required the children to use basic math skills to figure out how many steps the character would need to move, in addition to learning the basics of programming in Scratch to actually make the change. After we’d made the change, the child played the game again to see how the changes he had made had affected the game and whether he could now get a higher or lower score. After that, if he was interested, I helped him make other changes to the game to see what effect those changes had. We also generally changed the sprite of the player character to be a picture of the child so he could be “in” the game.
After a long day of playing I felt the children had a really great time playing around with the demo projects we prepared, and they also enjoyed putting themselves into the projects as sprites and creating their own sprites and backgrounds. And, from what I noticed at my station, the children were constantly engaging in problem solving and creative thinking as they interacted with the demo projects and interactive activities.