Scratch Day 2019: three cool Scratch coding activities

May 11 is Scratch Day, an international celebration of coding on Scratch’s free, block-based coding platform. London Connected Learning Centre’s Rowan Roberts shares her love of Scratch and suggests three great Scratch activities to try.

Rowan Roberts
Rowan Roberts demonstrating a motion sensor Scratch coding activity at Tate Exchange

Why is Scratch such a great tool?
Scratch allows you to develop a deep understanding of the logical structures used in programming without necessarily needing access to a knowledge of syntax or fast typing skills. This makes it a brilliant entry point into complex programming for children, showing them it’s possible to get creative by thinking computationally.

What’s a feature within Scratch you have used that you like?
It took me a long time to start using the “clone” blocks in the control section, which allow you to make copies of a sprite which all follow the same instructions. These can be really useful in games for making multiple prizes or enemies, and in drawing projects they can help you create a branching effect. Here’s an example: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/226662335/

What do you wish Scratch could do but currently doesn’t?
I would love to be able to program a character to draw something and for that drawing to itself become a sprite or costume. I think this would be a really great way of making games and animations more interactive, or of duplicating individual parts of drawing projects. It could be added to the “Set costume to:” block or become its own separate block within the Pen extension.

Three cool Scratch activities

A cross-curricular Scratch challenge

Not only is Scratch a brilliant tool for teaching the basics of programming, but it can also have great cross-curricular applications. Recently I worked with year 3 children to help them program their very own neolithic style cave paintings, writes Rowan Roberts.     Building on their year 2 work around compass directions, they started by predicting the outcome of this script:  

    Since the children hadn’t learnt about angles yet and were still new to Scratch I created the purple blocks to let them control the direction of the sprite in a way that I knew they could visualise. After discussions with their partners they were able to predict that the script would draw a square.     After that I showed them more complex examples, and asked them to match them to the patterns they would produce.    

    Once the children had made predictions and stated their reasons, they tested their theories by completing this Scratch project. They then designed and programmed their own cave paintings based on real life examples from around the world.  

Making ‘more blocks’ in Scratch – a great way to promote computational thinking

More blocks is a brilliant feature that has much to offer and yet I rarely see teachers using it.

‘More blocks’ allows you to create your own instruction block, then tell Scratch what should happen when you click on the block. This can be really handy if you have a program which runs the same instruction lots of times but not necessarily consecutively (eg the chorus of a song), so where a repeat block alone won’t do the job. It’s also great for the developing the thinking skill ‘decomposition’; ie breaking things down into smaller parts.

For example, if I asked you to tell Scratch to draw a house your first response might be to program each line and turn within that drawing individually. This would be a time consuming process (you’d need at least 12 blocks) and would also create a program that is very difficult to read.

A better solution might be to first program the sprite to draw a square, and then a triangle, and then put the two scripts together. This is much easier to do when you create ‘more blocks’. It allows you to turn each of these two scripts into what, in programming terms, is know as a procedure. You could then combine the two procedures so that they run one after the other. You could even create a third block called ‘house’ which combines the two, which is known as ‘nesting’.

Procedures are not mentioned in the curriculum for primary but our pupils will need to know about them when they get to key stage 3 and, in my opinion, they can make a whole range of programming techniques and concepts way easier to understand. Programs are much easier to read and if they are broken down into simple, readable parts, and this makes them must easier to debug if they go wrong.

An arty Scratch activity

Teachers often ask us how they can support their pupils’ progression and creativity in Scratch programming, writes London CLC computing education expert Rowan Roberts. One great way is to give children the opportunity to get artistic with their Scratch scripts. Check out these arty example projects. Each one shows off a different feature which your pupils can use to piece together their own Scratch masterpiece.

Scratch art project screen shot

1. Palm tree: This project showcases how, by using “more blocks” to define their own scripts, pupils can gradually build up greater levels of complexity in their programming. Naming procedures effectively also makes them much easier to debug whenever they go wrong!

2. Hypnotic pattern: This deceptively simple program makes use of Scratch’s “clone” function. As time goes on the sprite creates more and more copies of itself, each of which adds a random swirl to the colourful pattern.

3. Sound visualisers; waves and blobs: These two projects use the microphone input to affect the behaviour of a continuous line which a sprite draws across the screen. You can press the arrow keys to play sounds or speak into your microphone to make all sorts of colourful shapes appear.

4. Forest Hill: This final project, inspired by a part of South London, automatically generates a randomised forest on a hill. It brings together some of the more complex ideas from the projects above, along with some secondary maths skills. Like many Scratch projects, this one’s a work in progress… maybe your pupils can think of some ways to improve it.

  • If you’re still getting to grips with Scratch and could use a step-by-step introduction, take a look at UCL’s ScratchMaths curriculum. Each module contains teacher guides,  presentations and example Scratch projects containing all you need to get started, plus the activities are designed to support the year 5 and 6 mathematics curriculum.
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