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Should 3-Year-Olds Learn Computer Programming?

Scratch Jr hopes to teach preschoolers enough coding that they can design their own video games.

Can 3-year-olds learn enough computer programming to be able to build their own games or animate a story? That's the theory behind Scratch Jr, an MIT project set to launch this summer that wants to teach preschoolers creativity, design thinking, and problem-solving through coding.

The project is an extension of Scratch, a downloadable programming tool that's been available since 1998. Through Scratch, 8- to 13-year-old students from around the world have created and shared more than 2.3 million "interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art" projects. A grant from the National Foundation of Science will allow Scratch Jr to bring those learning benefits to younger students.

Scratch Jr's launch comes at a time when many experts are pushing for school systems to treat programming as an essential 21st-century skill that should be taught alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. Initiatives like the U.K.'s Coding for Kids made headlines last year for petitioning the government to add computer science to the curriculum to elementary school curricula.

Advocates of programming for young children say that such initiatives expose girls and students of color to computer science before they've absorbed the harmful message that the field is not for them. In the long run, that could lead to a more diverse tech workforce.

But some experts are concerned that Scratch Jr may not be developmentally appropriate for 3-year-olds. Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation told KQED/Mindshift that one problem she's observed with online programs like Scratch Jr is that they assume "children are fluent with reading when they're not."

To be successful, Scratch Jr must ensure it meets the needs of students who are still learning the basics of reading or don't know all their colors. But if the project finds ways around those challenges, it could help create a generation who consider programming as natural as counting to 10.

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