My kids participated in an “Hour of Code” exercise in their classrooms this year. If you’ve not heard of it, each year during Computer Science Education Week (December 5-11 in 2016), schools all over the world host one-hour coding events to introduce students to computer science. They’ve made a Flappy Bird clone using Scratch for the past two years at my kids’ local elementary school. While I’m constantly organizing experiments around the house, my kids don’t truly take an interest in something until they also see their friends doing it.
When I’m available, I like to go into my kids’ classrooms and help out with their events. This year, I thought I’d strike while the iron is hot and reinforce what the kids learned during Hour of Code, while also building something fun for their holiday parties. I’m all for any opportunity to show my kids how accessible and fun coding can be. So “Cookie Dash” and “Whack-an-Elf” were born.
Using Scratch to Build the Software
I created the software for both games in Scratch, which is the same language they use in Hour of Code. Scratch is a straightforward, visual programming environment for children. It helps them learn the basic constructs of programming in an accessible way, and it eliminates many of the headaches they might experience in other environments. Advanced topics like collision detection, animation, and deployment are simplified to just a few clicks. It is an excellent learning environment for kids, and it’s fun for adults, too, because you can go from idea to a functioning application or game in a ridiculously short period of time. This is what Scratch looks like under the covers; it should be apparent why this programming environment is good for kids!
The first game I created is “Whack-an-Elf,” a Christmas spin on the standard whack-a-mole game, replacing moles with Santas, reindeer, elves, and snowmen. Players hit their “moles” by striking modified Pringles cans with a modified Nerf-like hammer. The whacking box is filled with bubble wrap to provide a small amount of tactile feedback while they are whacking away at the cans. The whole thing is decidedly therapeutic for adults. You can find the game on MIT’s Scratch web site here.
Cookie Dash is a head-to-head game where players race to see whose character can reach the cookies first. They move their characters by alternately hitting foil pads that you configure into a course. We tried setting up a shuttle run course, a course that required them to twist back and forth, and a course that required them to repeatedly squat and jump. You can find the game on MIT’s Scratch web site here.
While you can play the games on your computer, they’re really meant to be played with physical objects connected to your computer. The hardware for each game was created from items I found around the house, e.g. plastic bottles, aluminum foil, cardboard boxes, Pringles cans. The most exotic component I used was copper foil tape, which could easily be substituted. The hardware was connected to the computer with a Makey Makey, which is used to replace input from keys or mouse clicks with contact to physical objects connected to the Makey Makey. The previous time I went into my daughter’s classroom, we created several circuits with a Makey, and had the kids close the circuits in various ways. For example, one experiment had the kids fist bump to play a Halloween video. It’s a neat little gadget that can be used to create many simple, hands-on experiments.
Making Your Own Games
One of the nice things about Scratch is that everything is shareable and cloneable. So if you want to try these project at home with your kids, “re-mix” the project and save it under your own account, make adjustments as you see fit, and build the physical objects to bring these games to life. You re-mix the projects by opening them on the Scratch web site, clicking the “See Inside” button in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, and then clicking the orange Re-mix button while you’re in the Scratch editor. I posted detailed Instructables for each game: Build a Two-Player Cookie Dash Game and Build the Whack-an-Elf Game.