“How long have you been on your computer, Mum?” asks my daughter Imogen. “You’ll be getting rectangular eyes if you’re not careful.”
“Not long,” I say hurriedly. “Oh, all right. I admit it. I’ve been on here quite a while, but you should see what I’ve been doing.”
The girls gather round and I proudly show them an animation I’m working on.
“Look! My sprite is moving across the screen and then it turns around and comes back,” I say with a big grin on my face.
Yesterday, the girls and I discovered the website Scratch:
With Scratch, you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community.
Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century.
Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. It is provided free of charge.
All evening Sophie, Gemma-Rose and I sat side-by-side trying to work out the basics of using code to make an animation. It wasn’t long before we had sprites moving across the screen, but they were gliding rather than walking. We just couldn’t work out how to move their legs.
The girls went off to bed but I continued experimenting. Suddenly I knew what to do. I got so excited. There was no way I was going to be able to wait until the morning to share my cleverness with the girls. I ran to their room: “Are you still awake? I’ve worked it out! I know how to make a sprite walk!”
This morning I shared my new animating knowledge with my daughters. Soon fish and aliens and people were all swimming and marching and strolling back and forth across the screen. Then we moved onto new problems. Sophie wanted to add conversation to her animation, and I experimented with music. Gemma-Rose has been modifying sprites, customising them to her taste. I predict we will be spending lots of hours on the computer as we try to conquer the skill of coding.
Lots of hours on the computer? That sounds rather frightening, doesn’t it? Do we want our children spending so much time in front of the screen? Perhaps we should limit them to half an hour or an hour of computer time a day?
“Mum, your hour is up. I’m sorry but you’ve got to go and do something else now,” orders Imogen.
“But… but… I’ve almost solved this problem. I can’t leave my code right now.”
“No buts, Mum! I want to see you outside getting some fresh air.”
I huff and I puff, and I glare at the girls.
Imogen bursts into giggles. “Oh okay! Just joking, Mum. If you want to keep working you can.”
I giggle too. But I also think how frustrating it would have been to interrupt my thought processes and stop work when I was right in the middle of a challenge.
I spend a lot of time on the computer, not usually making animations but writing. I enter my own creative world as I write and it is often difficult to return to the real world at a moment’s notice. I understand when my girls are also absorbed in their writing. Now I am wondering if the same thing happens when kids get involved with computer games and animations and other activities.
But do we consider animating and game playing and game design as worthwhile activities for children to be involved with? Are we willing to let them work for as long as they want? Work? Or a waste of time? I guess that’s the big question. Kids would certainly say they’re doing worthwhile work. I think I would too. It’s problem solving. It involves creative and thinking skills. And like it or not, computer technology is part of our world, something our children need to know about. It also happens to be fun.
By the way, there’s an interesting TED talk about the value of children learning coding, Let’s Teach Kids to Code, on the parents’ page of the Scratch website.
If you’re not sure about all this and you’re worried about how much time your kids are spending on the computer, I’d get on there with them. Ask them to share their passion. See what’s absorbing their interest. Join in and have some fun with them.
If we share our children’s interests, perhaps they’ll share ours. Well, that’s how it seems to happen in our family. We’re always sharing each other’s passions and learning from each other. We have loads of things we like to do. And right at the moment we are enjoying animation. But not exclusively…
“I’m off to have a run,” I say, as I close my computer. “I’ll finish that animation later.” I have decided, without any prompting from my bossy children, that it’s time to do something else.
“While you’re running, I’ll practise the piano,” says Sophie.
Gemma-Rose continues fiddling about with her sprite. That’s okay. I understand: Animation is absorbing.
Now I know my animation isn’t that impressive but I wish I could share it with you. My cute little orange sprite marches across my fading pink background to the strains of the Tenebrous Brothers Carnival. I wonder if sharing an animation on a blog is even possible. I’m sure I’ll work out everything eventually. I’m an ‘old’ mum learning new tricks.
Why don’t you join me? If our children want to spend time on the computer, why should we miss out on all the fun?