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What parents need to know
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What's it about?
Scratch is a free, downloadable application that lets users combine graphics, photos, music, and sound to create simple interactive animations, games, and slide shows. Users create scripts by dragging and dropping graphical blocks that snap together like puzzle pieces. They can then post their creations on the Scratch site, where others can view and download them. This MIT effort is named after scratching, the technique hip-hop DJs use to create music by combining turntable manipulation with prerecorded clips and synthesizers.
Is it any good?
There are easier ways to create, say, an animated greeting card than to use a program like Scratch. Then again, most greeting card software doesn't attempt to teach programming like Scratch does. With building blocks divided into intuitive categories such as "motion" and "sound," older kids should be able to quickly knock together creations in which characters sing, dance, and talk.
Scratch is certainly easier to pick up than eToys, a similar visual programming app for kids. Where Scratch stumbles is in explaining variables, random numbers, and other mathematical concepts. Unless kids have already learned these in school, they'll need help in understanding and using them in Scratch. One other nit: Too many of the Scratch creations featured on the site load very slowly or not at all.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the benefits of mastering Scratch, a program that, despite a pretty good interface, will almost certainly overwhelm kids who are not mathematically inclined. Younger children especially will need adult assistance, both in getting started and understanding the program's most complex concepts.
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