MEDFORD (CBS) – A new app from researchers at MIT and Tufts teaches kids basic computer programming.

Some of the kindergarteners WBZ-TV visited in Medford may not read yet, but they can already create their own interactive stories and games. They have learned a simple computer programming language from the new app Scratch Jr. that was designed specifically for their age group.

“To control the characters in their stories in Scratch Jr., children snap together graphical building blocks, much like putting together Lego pieces,” said Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab.

For example, one block will tell the cat to move right, and another to jump. When put together, the cat jumps to the right.

Kids can make characters talk and change size and color.

“When many people think of computer programming, they think of something very sophisticated,” Resnick says. “But we don’t think it has to be that way.”

The developers of Scratch Jr. say it’s important for young kids to get comfortable with coding, which helps with early math and problem-solving skills.

“Research shows that stereotypes – in terms of ‘I’m good or bad in math, science and technology’- start to form by fourth grade,” says Marina Umaschi Bers of Tufts.

The National Science Foundation, which funded the initiative, wants to change how kids traditionally consume content, making their screen time more interactive.

“I learned to concentrate and use the imagination a lot,” Talia Levitt said.

But could more screen time at a young age come at the expense of other types of learning or play? Dr. Sandra Calvert of the Children’s Digital Media Center says parents must strike a balance.

“Because you want to have them to get out and run around and play as well,” Dr. Calvert said. “There is also a concern that our children will be left behind if they don’t know how to use the technologies that are going to shape 21st century careers, jobs.”

Scratch Jr. isn’t designed to turn all kids into engineers. The creators say it just provides the building blocks for learning.

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Paula Ebben

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