Engaging Families with Creative Learning Experiences

Public media station WGBH and partners encourage children and families to learn together in coding workshop series

Families share their coding projects with one another at the end of the Family Creative Learning workshop series.

By My Nguyen

Last fall, WGBH — Boston’s local public radio station — hosted a family workshop series with the Boston Public Library, Boston Public Schools’ Adult Learning Center, English for New Bostonians, and Tech Goes Home. They invited nine families to participate, including children ages five to eight, and their siblings.

The four-week series centered around the free PBS Kids ScratchJr coding app. By snapping together colorful programming blocks in the app, young children can “make characters move, jump, dance and sing.” In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects and express themselves creatively on tablets.

The families gathered on Saturday mornings at the Boston Public School’s Adult Learning Center.

The Scratch Foundation interviewed WBGH’s Digital Production Coordinator, Mollie Elkin, via email, about the experience.

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Mollie Elkin, and I am a Digital Production Coordinator at WGBH, Boston’s public media station.

Can you describe the workshop series that WGBH recently hosted?

The workshop series was based on Ricarose Roque’s Family Creative Learning model. Each workshop was divided into four sections: Eat (a delicious breakfast), Explore (learn about a new ScratchJr concept), Make (create a project), and Share (learn about what others have created). In addition, families learned about ways to extend coding beyond the workshop, as well as about PBS KIDS resources.

We are one of 11 public media stations across the nation who ran this workshop series as part of the Ready to Learn Community Collaborative-Early Learning Media (RTL CC-ELM) grant.

What is Ready to Learn?

Ready To Learn is a program of the US Department of Education that supports the development of educational television and digital media targeted at preschool and early elementary school children and their families. The goal of RTL is to promote early learning and school readiness, with a particular focus on vulnerable children and families. In addition to creating television and other media products, the program supports activities intended to promote national distribution of the programming, effective educational uses of the programming, community-based outreach, and research on educational effectiveness.

The current five-year cooperative agreement was awarded to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS to fund innovative science and literacy media initiatives to support the learning needs of children in low-income communities. The ScratchJr workshop series, and upcoming Odd Squad camps and other activities, are part of this grant.

What was the goal of the workshop series?

There were a few key goals for the workshop series. These included:

  • Introducing ScratchJr and coding to families
  • Providing an opportunity for parents and children to create together with technology
  • Building capacity of parents to support their own and their children’s STEM learning
  • Building capacity of WGBH and our partners to provide high-quality programming for families focused on ScratchJr, coding, and STEM
Mollie Elkin introduces children to the PBS Kids ScratchJr app.

What was the station’s role?

WGBH worked collaboratively with our partners to plan and execute the workshop series. During the workshop series itself, I co-facilitated with a Boston Public School Adult Learning Center teacher, Liz Butler. We also had help from a variety of volunteers, some with previous experience teaching ScratchJr, and others who also teach at the Adult Learning Center.

Who attended the program?

Nine families attended our workshop series. We had nine parents and an average of 22 kids participate! Each parent was enrolled as a current student in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class at the Boston Public Schools’ Adult Learning Center. The children ranged in age, from five to 17.

How did the parents respond to PBS Kids ScratchJr?

Parents were enthusiastic to learn about coding, spend time with their children, create projects — featuring themselves and their favorite PBS KIDS characters! — and explore resources that support their children’s learning. What’s wonderful about ScratchJr is that it is a graphical language; no reading (by parents or kids) is required!

How did the workshop engage parents who had little experience with programming?

Although parents did not have previous experience with programming, they were familiar with the PBS KIDS characters used within the app. This was a great pathway for engaging them in coding!

Parents explore the PBS Kids ScratchJr app together with their child.

How did the workshop encourage collaboration between family members?

We wanted parents and children to work together in ScratchJr, so we intentionally provided fewer iPads than participants. We encouraged parents to share an iPad with one or two of their children, depending on how many were in their family. If there were more than two children in a family, we handed out an additional iPad for the older siblings to share, encouraging children in the target age range to work with the parent.

It was amazing to see how seamlessly parents and children collaborated while creating their projects! While we initially thought that kids might try to take over the play experience, we were delighted to see co-creation happening with almost every family. While it took practice, I was thrilled to see the different roles that children and parents took on as they created their projects.

How did the workshop encourage collaboration among different families?

We highly encouraged cross-collaboration throughout the series. At the beginning of the first session, families were encouraged to ask one another for help before asking a facilitator. One collaborative moment that stands out for me is when families discovered that they could create backgrounds and characters from their own surroundings by using their own photos and images. One family spent almost the entire session trying to add Thanksgiving characters and backgrounds because they wanted to make a Thanksgiving Day card. When another family noticed what they were doing, they asked how to do it. The two families worked together to take pictures. Then, they helped others who were also interested in adding their own images to their projects.

Additionally, the “Share” portion of the workshop was a wonderful opportunity for families to learn about what others had created. Families were paired up for this portion to share what they created and give feedback to one another about what they liked, and ways they could add to their projects. As a facilitator, this was my favorite part to watch, because families were enthusiastic to share their creations.

What other changes did you see in kids, parents, or families over the course of the series?

One of the big changes I saw in participants was confidence in exploring ScratchJr. At first, everyone — especially the parents — seemed a bit timid to try out new blocks without explicitly being told what to do. By the end of the fourth week, families were using many different blocks, even ones that we hadn’t discussed. Part of the reason for more exploration was the program’s emphasis on the design process. We reiterated each week that taking risks is part of the design process, and it’s okay if things don’t work the first time!

A mother and daughter create a project about Nature Cat in PBS KIDS ScratchJr.

What did you learn about organizing creative experiences for families?

I learned how powerful it is to give parents space to play with technology before working with their children. Many times, children expect their parents to be the experts, even if they are experiencing something for the first time. We wanted to give parents the opportunity to play in ScratchJr without the fear of failing and feeling like they had to be experts.

We intentionally allocated time each week for parents to work with each other. During the first session, parents worked in pairs on ScratchJr, giving them ample time to play and explore. In subsequent weeks, parents had about a half hour during the “Make” section to learn about a new concept, try it out, and ask questions without their children being present.

Can you describe the last day? What kind of projects did families create?

There was so much energy on the last day of the series! Families continued working on their projects, which they had started in the previous session. During the last hour, families shared what they created. Since pair sharing between families had been so successful during the previous week, we continued this for the final share session. Families showed their projects to each other and learned about what others had made.

Since our workshop series took place in the late fall/early winter, holidays were a reoccurring theme in many of the families’ projects. There was a scary Halloween project, a Thanksgiving Day card, and a Christmas story, just to name a few. In addition to holidays, there were projects that included characters from multiple PBS KIDS shows — we saw what might happen if they all met for the first time!

At the end of the day, each family received a certificate, a frame with a picture of the family working together, and a collection of PBS KIDS-themed tchotchkes.

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote from the workshop series that you can share?

My favorite part of the workshop series was when families discovered they could become characters in their own ScratchJr projects! During the third session when families were working on their final projects, I kept hearing bursts of laughter coming from different parts of the room. I soon realized that parents and children were laughing as they took pictures of each other and then “programmed themselves” in their ScratchJr projects. One mom and her two kids created a Christmas card where each of them, as characters in the project, danced to Jingle Bell Rock. I loved how engaged parents and children were with their projects, and how ScratchJr sparked meaningful moments between family members.

Sisters take pictures of one another to become characters in PBS KIDS ScratchJr.

What surprised you about the series?

I was surprised to see how well parents and children worked together on the iPad to create their projects. We had hypothesized that children would pick up ScratchJr faster and therefore try to take over the play experience. However, we noticed that this was not the case. Children and parents equally contributed to the project, creating characters, adding programming blocks, and coming up with new ideas for how to improve their project.

Does WGBH have plans to host similar series in the future?

Yes! We plan to host another FCL workshop around ScratchJr this coming spring at a new location, as part of the RTL CC-ELM grant. During this iteration, 16 public media stations around the United States will be running a similar series! We plan to expand the course to include media and technology literacy, as well as additional ScratchJr content. Eventually, we hope to adopt a train-the-trainer model so that we can train others to run their own ScratchJr workshop series!

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