Looking for alternatives to Scratch?

Scratch seems to have become the go-to software for schools trying to teach the new computing curriculum.  It is simple and more importantly totally free.  It is the perfect fit for the computing curriculum at primary but is it the only way?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Scratch and think it is awesome.  There is a danger however that some of our students could become ‘scratched to death.’  I want to look at a number of other options there exist out there. I use quite a few of the resources below to supplement our curriculum, to challenge the more able and to inject something a little different to break up the repetitiveness of the same software for 6 years.

SNAP! (Formerly BYOB) – This is very similar to Scratch in many ways.  Developed at Berkley in the USA it has a few tricks up its sleeve.  Snap allows you to be a bit more complicated and creative.  It allows for more use of variables, as well as creating your own blocks.  This is handy as often Scratch requires the same pairs of blocks all the time.

KODU – Kodu is Microsoft’s game design platform.  Originally created as a game creation app for the Xbox, it is also available on PC for free.  It produces simple games with stunning 3d graphics.  The big win here is that you can plug in an Xbox controller to play your games.  The interface is very intuitive and fun.

Hour of code – This is the behemoth of a site supported by the American Government, Facebook and numerous app developers.  It is all free to use and there is a wealth of tutorials in all kinds of languages.

Erase all Kittens. –An incredibly fun way to learn HTML.  Although HTML is not strictly a programming language, it requires children to code.  This is an irreverent mix of coding and cat gifs.

Code Kingdoms – This is a paid site, but an excellent resource for children to learn to code in JavaScript.  Children explore the kingdom and have to use pieces of code to solve problems and overcome obstacles.

Microbit portal – Although the microbits themselves are as rare are unicorns, you can use the online emulator for free.  It allows you to code a virtual Microbit in JavaScript, Blockly, Python and touch develop.  Blockly is a language similar to the Scratch interface.

Barclays’ code playground. – High street bank Barclays have a whole site devoted to helping parents and children work together to learn how to code.  You can change the variables on the site (using JavaScript) to see how it changes the behaviours of the characters.

Turtle academy. –   Learn to code using the LOGO language.  Logo is out of fashion somewhat now but still has a place.

One of my other favourite toys to play with is X-ray Specs. It allows you to peek at and change ANY website.  Do not worry it is not actually changing the real page but allows pupils to see what is ‘under the hood’ and experiment.  It creates a local copy of the page.  It is also a lot of fun!

There is a whole host of APPs available for tablets too.  I can recommend Lightbot, Kodeable, Cargobot and A.L.E.X.   They are all very simple and accessible for younger children.

The key success behind many of these activities is that children do not feel like they are learning.  It I fun to them.  Lee Parkinson, a leading CPD provider, talks of ‘camouflage learning’, the idea of children learning through fun activities.

Finally, it is also possible to teach much of the computing curriculum unplugged from a computer.  While that sounds highly counter intuitive, it works.  Much of the computing curriculum is about creating, improving and following sets of instructions.  This can be achieved in fun ways through PE or other cross-curricular activities.

There is an excellent book available here that has pages and pages of activities that can support the curriculum without having to touch a computer.

Whatever resources you choose to use to achieve this it must be used in fun and engaging ways.  Children can design their own games, rather than copying sections of code. This is the difference between creative writing and copying out a passage of text by an author. While the content of the second may be better, the learning taking place in the former is much greater.

While you can decompose the work of others to understand why it has been created in that way, we need to create original content using problem solving skills to do so.

Most importantly, enjoy exploring the wealth of resources available out there for the learning of coding.

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