Healing with Code

The Spanish non-profit Programamos is bringing Scratch to children in hospitals

By My Nguyen

At a decade old, Scratch reaches millions of young people every day.

Developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, the visual programming language and online community is designed especially for ages 8 to 15, but it is used by people of all ages.

Perhaps that’s because central to the mission of Scratch is the idea that everyone — no matter their background or circumstances— can create with technology, not just consume it.

Sure enough, people are creating Scratch projects in a wide variety of settings, including schools, homes, museums, libraries, community centers, and now, even hospitals.

A non-profit organization in Andalusia, Spain, called Programamos is bringing coding experiences to children at Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocío in Seville, Spain.

Jesús Moreno, a co-founder of Programamos, first encountered Scratch in 2010 and fell in love with it instantly. At the time, he was a teacher searching for a programming language to introduce to his 14-year-old students. When he stumbled upon Scratch, he knew he’d found exactly what he needed.

“I believe students can use Scratch to learn, teach, and create all kinds of projects — not just computing.”

After teaching for more than a decade, then working at the Ministry of Education in Spain, Jesús co-founded Programamos, which focuses on promoting computer programming in schools.

The idea to bring programming into hospitals actually came from Jesús’ parents.

“They really encouraged me to organize something in hospitals,” he said. “Patricia Flor, another Programamos co-founder, has a relative who works in the biggest hospital in Seville. They spoke to us about the kids hospitalized in the pediatric oncology area, and we decided to organize four Scratch workshops for them.”

Based on these initial workshops, Google for Education awarded them a Google RISE Award in 2016. The RISE program “supports and connects not-for-profit organizations around the world to increase equity in computer science education with a focus on girls, minorities who are historically underrepresented in the field, and youth from low-income communities.”

With this grant, Programamos was able to run weekly workshops for the children at Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocío over the course of a year.

“Even though I have worked with children for many years, one of the things that still surprises me is the magical capacity kids have for just being kids. In spite of any difficulties they faced — such as operations, motor or cognitive problems — they continued to smile and play and enjoy themselves,” said Alejandra Sánchez Acosta, a workshop facilitator at the hospital. “Without a doubt, that was the most valuable lesson that I took home every week.”

The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Jesús to learn more about the project, recoDery: healing with code.

Can you describe the first day of the workshops?

On the first day we were all very excited to start with Scratch, but many of the kids didn’t even know we were there! We realized that we had to go room by room to tell them about the workshops and ask them to join us in the computer room. We told them that they were going to gain a kind of superpower…

How did the kids respond?

Most of them were skeptical at first, but curious enough to give it a try. Once they realized they could make their ideas come alive with code, it became difficult to get them to go back to their rooms when the day’s workshop was over!

What kind of projects did kids create?

With kids who had never programmed before, we used activities from the Creative Computing Guide, such as the maze project, so that they could simply interact with Scratch. Once they understood the basics, we encouraged them to be creative and use their imaginations. They created all kinds of personal projects, including games, stories, and greeting cards for their relatives or friends.

How did you engage the parents in the experience?

Our goal for the workshops was always to be the first step — the spark that ignited their interest in programming — with the hope that kids would continue coding at home when they left the hospital. Parents are key allies, so we invited them to join and participate in the workshops, too, transforming the sessions into family activities.

In the satisfaction surveys and interviews we carried out, many parents shared that during the workshops, for a moment, they were able to forget that they were in the hospital, making their time there a bit more pleasant.

How did you engage younger children?

For younger children who were not quite reading yet — we had some children as young as three-years-old! — we used programmable robots and ScratchJr. We thought that the robots might be more appealing to them, but most children preferred to code with ScratchJr. They were able to create their own meaningful projects, just as the older participants did with Scratch.

Why did you decide to use Scratch for the workshops?

Scratch allows kids to create almost anything they can think of, making it easier to engage kids with different interests and motivations. Also, the Scratch community — with its vibrant atmosphere for sharing ideas, gaining inspiration from millions of projects, and learning from each other — is a fundamental factor in supporting that engagement.

Can you describe a favorite memory from the experience?

One of the most memorable moments comes from Alejandra Sánchez Acosta, one of the workshop facilitators.

Before starting a workshop, she greeted one kid and asked him, “How are you?” He replied with a huge and sincere, “I’m scared.” We later learned that he was scheduled to have a third heart operation the next day. Alejandra encouraged him to participate in the session, and she saw his fear of the operation subside when he realized that he could create his own video game. He later proudly showed the game to his family.

What did you learn from the experience?

The kids who attended our workshops ranged in age, from three to 16 years old. Some participated in the workshops with their parents, while others did it by themselves. We had kids who had participated in previous workshops, and others who were engaging with Scratch for the first time. Because of this, it was impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we prepared a lineup of activities that could appeal to a diverse range of participants and improvised a bit to make sure that everyone could create meaningful projects.