In February, as the temperature dropped outside, the spark of learning was igniting inside NYSCI. Throughout mid-winter recess, diverse groups of kids were learning to code in Design Lab.

In an article in Edutopia, Mitch Resnick, a professor at the MIT Media Labs, said: “They (computers) weren’t just machines to get a job done – they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and the world.” But the challenge for us was how to develop coding activities for all ages.

We found that the most streamlined way to teach kids coding was to use MIT’s Scratch programming software. It is freely available and its real power is how intuitive it is. Functions such as “move 10 step” and “say hello” are in the shape of puzzle pieces. All a person has to do is find functions they want their sprites (in Scratch, avatars are called sprites) to do and connect them together.

Using Scratch, we developed a series of prompts to get kids started:

  • Change Scratch cat to a different animal.
  • Change the background to somewhere exotic.
  • Make your character dance.
  • Add music.
  • Add more characters and code a scratch party!

In Design Lab, we encourage kids to be curious, work together, and to take creative risks. We also know we can’t take ourselves too seriously. By establishing a playful atmosphere, we let kids know it’s okay to be whimsical. This helps kids feel comfortable to try new things and not feel pressured to ‘be perfect’.

When planning our Scratch workshop, we brainstormed for topics that are universal and that cut through demographics. We decided to use dance parties. By giving kids the opportunity to design their own dance parties and to choose which Scratch characters they wanted to attend their parties, we gave them control over the narrative. Often kids are expected to follow, by giving them agency over storytelling this lead to increased creativity.

Our Scratch workshop was constantly busy and was filled with diverse audiences who were enjoying the process of coding. Mitch Resnick explains the appeal of coding: “Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others – of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reason for learning to code are the same reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.”

Schools are currently figuring out how to incorporate coding into their formal education settings. But museums have more flexibility and can incorporate coding into our programs in ways where kids have free choice in what they can design. It is an exciting challenge for any museum educator to undertake.

Here at NYSCI, we are already thinking about new ways to get kids excited about coding and we will prototype more coding programs very soon!