Scratch Blocks update: Making it easier to develop coding apps for kids

Posted by Champika Fernando, Product Manager, Google, and Kasia Chmielinski, Product Lead, MIT Scratch Team

We want to empower developers to build great creative learning apps for kids. That's why, earlier this year, we announced Scratch Blocks, a free, open-source project created by the MIT Scratch and Google Kids Coding teams. Together, we are building this highly tinkerableand playful block-based programming grammar based on MIT's popular Scratch language and Blockly's architecture. With Scratch Blocks, developers can integrate Scratch-style coding into apps for kids.

Today, we're excited to share our progress in a number of areas:

1. Designing for tinkerability

Research from the MIT Media Lab has highlighted the importance of providing children with opportunities for quick experimentation and rapid cycles of iteration. For example, the Scratch programming environment makes it easy for kids to adjust the code while it's running, as well as try coding blocks by just tapping on them. Since our initial announcement in May, we've focused on supporting this type of tinkerability in the Scratch Blocks project by making it very easy for developers to connect Scratch Blocks directly to the Scratch VM (a related open-source project being developed by MIT). In this model, instead of blocks being converted to a text-based language like JavaScript which is then interpreted, the blocks themselves are the code. The result is a more tinkerable experience for the end-user.

2. Designing for all levels

Computational thinking1 is a valuable skill for everyone. In order to support developers building a wide diversity of coding experiences with Scratch Blocks, we've designed two related block grammars that can be used in a variety of contexts. One grammar uses icon-based blocks that connect horizontally, while the other uses text-based blocks that connect vertically.

We started by developing the horizontal grammar, which is well-suited for beginners of all ages due to its simplicity and limited number of blocks; additionally, this grammar is easier to manipulate on small screens. You can see an example of the horizontal icon-based grammar in Code a Snowflake (an activity in this year's Google Santa Tracker) built by the Google Kids Coding Team. More recently, we've added the vertical grammar, which supports a wider range of complex concepts. The horizontal grammar can also be translated into vertical blocks, making it possible to transition between the grammars. We imagine this will be useful in a number of situations, including designing for multiple screen sizes, or as an element of the app's learning experience.

3. Designing for all devices

We're building Scratch Blocks for a world that is increasingly mobile, where people of all ages will tinker with code in a variety of environments. We've improved the mobile experience in many key areas, both in Scratch Blocks as well as the underlying Blockly project:

  • Redesigned blocks for improved touchability
  • Fast loading of large projects on low-powered devices
  • Optimization of block manipulation and code editing on touch screens
  • Redesigned multi-touch support for a better experience on touch devices

How to get involved

These first six months of Scratch Blocks have been a lot of work - and a ton of fun. To stay up to date on the project, check out our Github project, and learn more on our Developer Page.

[1] Learn more about Computational Thinking