Transforming screen time: Kids can use smartphones to enhance their creativity


Courtesy of the researchers

Courtesy of the researchers

By Mitchel Resnick


In many traditional childhood activities, children develop their creative abilities by making things: building towers with wooden blocks and Lego bricks, drawing pictures with crayons and markers, making musical patterns with drums and bells.

Why not take the same approach with new technologies? That’s what we do in the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab: We develop technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, enable young people to playfully create things they care about.

In the past, our group developed the Scratch programming language, which enables young people to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations, and then share their creations with one another in an online community. More than 100 million young people around the world have created projects with Scratch since the software launched in 2007. I’m continually amazed and delighted by the diverse range of creative projects that young people create with Scratch — including science simulations, interactive newsletters, how-to tutorials, remixes of classic video games, collaborative stories, and calls to action for social causes.

Young people can create Scratch projects on laptops and desktop computers, but not on mobile phones. We designed Scratch for larger screens, so that young people could easily put together graphical programming blocks and see the resulting games and animations all on the same screen. For a long time, we weren’t sure whether it would be possible to design an easy-to-use general-purpose coding interface for the smaller screens of mobile phones.

But as phones got into the hands of more and more young people — and, in many parts of the world, became the only digital technology they would ever have access to — we felt a growing sense of urgency to develop ways for them to design and create projects on phones.

My longtime collaborator Natalie Rusk became especially motivated to address this problem after talking with an educator in Uganda named Solomon Bwire, who was organizing workshops for children during the pandemic. In Solomon’s community, very few children had access to computers, but many had access to mobile phones. Searching online for a free coding app for phones, Solomon found that someone had created one, but it was hard to use, it was full of bugs, and it crashed often. When Solomon met with Natalie as part of an Africa Code Week initiative, he emphasized the importance of developing an easy-to-use coding app for phones.

Natalie began working with Paula Bontá, Kreg Hanning, and others in our Lifelong Kindergarten group to design a new coding app with an interface better suited to small screens and taking advantage of the special features of mobile phones, such as built-in sensors.

We named the app OctoStudio, with an octopus as the featured character.

Related Content