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When the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 spend exactly zero time in front of screens, what its members are concerned about is substitution – all the time those children aren’t spending acquiring new skills and language through one-on-one interaction.

Yet a new effort by researchers at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group will attempt to create a programming environment suitable for toddlers. It’s hard to imagine that any but the most precocious children would be able to interact with Scratch Jr. before the age of two, but as Heather Chaplin reports for KQED, the new software will be aimed squarely at children who have barely learned their colors, much less how to read.

“What’s most important to me is that young children start to develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control,” [says Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group.]

The advent of touch interfaces means that children are spending more time with computers than ever. More than two hours of screen time a day has been linked to psychological problems, but short of that, wouldn’t children’s screen time be better spent mastering new skills?

Programming, in particular, is the new literacy. If children are exposed to the alphabet from the time they can sit up, why wouldn’t we introduce programming as early as possible?

Scratch, Jr. is a re-designed version of Scratch, which has been used to teach programming principles to elementary school-age children. Gone from Scratch Jr. is are the reliance on text and colors that young children have trouble distinguishing. The entire interface is to be simplified, even gamified. Chaplin reports:

The group has also been studying tutorials in videogames, which teach kids how to play without realizing they’re being taught. “We want to add something like that to Scratch Jr,” [says Marina Bers, a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab.]

To the extent that adult education in programming – via sites like CodeAcademy – is currently in vogue, it’s only logical that we should be trying even harder to make an education in programming as essential to a child’s education as all of the other areas of study that we consider essential.

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