Scratch from MIT (https://scratch.mit.edu/) is an extraordinary achievement. It teaches kids the essentials of programming (planning, logic, etc.) while providing an intuitive interface and a versatile structure. It can, however be a little overwhelming, especially for the younger coders out there. Enter Natalie Rusk’s Scratch Coding Cards from No Starch Press. The cards present 10 directed projects across 75 cards designed to teach youngsters the basics while giving them enjoyable end goals to works towards.
The cards themselves are large, colorful, and sturdy. The instructions presented on each card are clear, and the illustrations are eye catching and helpful. Small asides and footnotes on some cards assist with more advanced concepts. A well-designed booklet introduces coordinates, sprites, and the like before having the kids dive into their first program which teaches them how to animate letters in various ways. While any of the 10 programs can be completed in any order, it seems Rusk wishes learners to work from front to back while slowly introducing more facets of the Scratch platform such as variables, and if-then loops. This works to a degree, but I find the cards introduce some material haphazardly, explaining in greater detail in later cards rather than the first time they appear. For instance, an explanation of positive and negative variables affecting where a sprite moves is offered several programs after the first time the coder is asked to create a moving sprite. This is not a big deal in itself, but it could be confusing to a child trying to experiment on his or her own. The cards seem to be designed for an adult to assist kids while they learn rather than as a teaching tool on their own, though the handy color coding of commands will help kids locate the instructions they need to add to their programs even if some of the icon locations could be explained in better detail. Far from a problem, I truly believe this is a solid design, as it encourages an adult (parent, librarian, teacher) to help the kids as they learn rather than making using the coding cards a solitary activity.
The various programs are diverse, showing the incredibly wide range of activities available to someone who masters the art of Scratch’s drag-and-drop programming. I definitely enjoy spending time with my son as he learns to create his own ball-drop game (with scorekeeping), or creates animated stories. Each program only takes about 30 minutes to fully implement, even for a beginner, so learning is quick, painless, and fun. The $24.95 price point feels fair considering the quality of the card stock, the sturdy box which will prevent damage to the cards, and how incredibly useful the cards are as a teaching tool. That being said, once a child creates (and saves) these 10 programs, they may not want or need to go back, but the cards will certainly provide a handy reference, especially for libraries or others looking to teach somewhat larger groups over a number of years. If you’re looking for a great way to introduce children to the world of computers and programming, you owe it to them to provide a copy of Scratch Coding Cards as well, or at the very least donate a set to your local library or school.