“Mom, can you help me build a videogame?”

My daughter Anaya (age 10) works on code for a new Scratch project.

By Ayanna Murray

“Mom, I think I’m going to build a video game. I’ve already started on the storyline,” my daughter said as she handed me what seemed to be a 20-page report.

I looked over the carefully-crafted story and drawings of kids traveling through a fictional world trying to save the planet from being destroyed.

“Wow! This looks really good.”

“I’ve already started sketching out the characters and their personality descriptions.”

“You’ve put a lot of time into this. But don’t you think you should probably learn how to make a video game first?”

“I know…can you help me?”

In the past, whenever my kids expressed interest in doing something I’ve been able to come through. You wanna play basketball? No problem — I’ve got that covered. Art, sure, I can make that happen! Science experiments, you came to the right person. Theatre, I’ll write the script!

But, when my 12-year old daughter Jayda asked me to help her build a video game, I had no idea where to start. Well, that’s not completely true. Whenever I’m stuck, I do what millions of parents do when their kids come home from school and ask them to help with a strange math problem or homework that is way beyond their expertise. I went straight to YouTube!

Soon, I began a deep search into the world of computer science for kids — it was so eye opening. I quickly discovered that there are huge gaps in the workforce for computer science, and that the skills gained through coding are essential for the 21st century job market. I also learned there is a serious need for diversity in the field, as minorities and women are noticeably absent from the world of computer science. Perhaps most relevant to my family, I found that there are many companies and organizations providing online computer programming courses, training, and workshops. Sites like Khan Academy, Codecademy, Code Avengers, Vidcode, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code are just a few that I explored.

As a consumer of technology, I suddenly became aware of how oblivious I was to the fact that code could be found in nearly every device in my home! After hours of scouring the internet, I was totally convinced — coding is a skill that all kids should learn, just like reading and writing. But where should you start, with 200+ choices in programming languages? You’ve got C, C++, C#, Java Script, Python, Ruby, Arduino, Groovy, and Justin Bieber, just to name a few. Okay, I just made up the last one — but still, I was overwhelmed with all of the possibilities!

Jayda (age 12) plays a martial arts-themed project.

I knew I needed something for beginners: a program that would be both effective and fun. There was one large challenge, though. I have three younger children who, whenever they see their big sister doing something exciting, they want to do it, too! Nearly every coding resource I found online was either too difficult for the younger ones to use, or too expensive for all four of my children to participate. I was almost ready to sell an arm and a leg to pay for coding courses when I came across Scratch.

Scratch is a free visual programming software language developed by Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. It was created for kids 8–16 years old, but even adults and universities like Harvard use it! It works by moving and snapping blocks together in order to control the behavior of the sprites, or characters.

As soon as I showed the kids, they were hooked! Scratch was like finding a gold mine. It provided enough challenge for my eldest and was just right for my younger kids. Scratch provided the perfect platform for using logic, problem solving, and creativity. In fact, as I am writing this post, two of my children asked if they could animate their poetry writing! Of course — truly a parent’s dream!

Scratch was perfect for my younger kids, Shaun (left, age 9), Anaya (center, age 10), and Jared (right, age 9).

It is amazing that my kids can have loads of fun while learning critical problem-solving skills — not to mention writing code to create their games, art, and writing.

Jayda created an animation for a collaborative MAP (multi-animator project) on Scratch.

In fact, my kids enjoyed themselves so much, I thought it “criminal” not to invite others to join them in the experience. So for a year, every Monday, my kids hosted a computer club with about ten “Scratchers” packed into my dining room. It was an awesome sight and the perfect way for parents and kids to learn together.

Now, I can reply confidently to my daughter’s request to help her build a game: “You wanna code? No problem, I know exactly where to begin!”

Our family visited the Scratch Team (and Scratch Cat!) at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, in 2015.

Ayanna Murray is a homeschool educator at Murray Homeschool Academy. She lives in Mount Vernon, NY with her husband and four children. View her Computer Science for Kids board on Pinterest.