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Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games Review by Melanie Reynolds and Jennifer Smeltser

Al Sweigart
No Starch Press, Inc.
(800) 420-7240 or (415) 863-9900
245 8th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
https://www.nostarch.com/

What is the simplest way to teach computer programming to a child? If your child is interested in learning how to create and program computer games, the Scratch programming language is a fantastic way to learn. Software developer and author Al Sweigart has written an incredibly user-friendly and exciting book which builds on Scratch. It’s called Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games, and is ideal for families and children who’d like to learn simple programming and designing online games. It is available from No Starch Press, Inc. as a print book ($24.95, which comes with a free Ebook) or as an Ebook ($19.95 in PDF, Mobi, or ePub).

So what is Scratch? It’s a free drag-and-drop programming language, developed by MIT, that runs in a web browser, and can be used on Windows or Mac computers (and even Linux). Although it was originally developed for ages 8 through 16, worldwide programmers both older and younger than that use it successfully. Scratch is available at https://scratch.mit.edu/, and users can either open a free account (which enables them to save all of their work), or simply create on the website. The most important components of Scratch are the Sprites (the characters users populate their games with) and the colored drag-and-drop code blocks (which enable the Sprites to move and complete actions). Scratch is easy to learn and simple to use, and is an excellent medium for programming beginners.

Al Sweigart’s Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games teaches users how to build actual online games via Scratch, using simple step-by-step coding instructions. The book begins with a tutorial for Scratch, where the user is introduced to the Sprites and code blocks, online and offline editing, paint editing and getting help for various problems. Then, the fun begins, and the book jumps right into game building! Mr. Sweigart directs users to start with a pencil-and-paper line drawing of the final result they’re working towards. Then, he leads them through each step of the coding process. Users build little by little, then test what they’ve built, to make sure the programs are working. By the end of each chapter, students will have moved from a line drawing on paper to a colorful, playable online game! (Not to mention a sense of pride in their own accomplishments!) Here’s a sampling of some of the projects in this book:

  • A rainbow art project with colors that move, shift and awe the viewer
  • A maze game where the Sprite has to move right, left, backwards and forwards to reach the end
  • A basketball game with the Sprite shooting hoops
  • A new take on the familiar “brick breaker” game
  • A Scratch version of “Fruit Ninja”
  • And more games, plus a final chapter which leads the user in programming more advanced “platformer” games

We have been interested in the Scratch program for some time, but never really took the time to learn it. When we heard about this book, however, we knew that now was the time to jump in! My son is in 9th grade, which made him just the right age to use this book on his own. To utilize the Scratch Programming Playground book most effectively, we started a family account at the Scratch website, and also downloaded a zip file that Mr. Sweigart includes in the book, which contains a skeleton program for each of the game builds taught here. (Students are encouraged to just build using the book’s instructions, but the skeleton programs can be used instead if necessary.) Next, my son read the first chapter and familiarized himself with the Scratch coding methods. That is all that it really took us for preparation, and he was then ready to begin programming the first game, the rainbow art project. I hung out nearby just in case there were some programming issues. And, we did run into a few, but they weren’t due to any problems with Scratch or the book’s instructions. It’s just something that can happen to even the most experienced computer programmer as he creates a program. Fortunately, we were able to identify the problem, every time, by just working back through the programming instructions and making the necessary changes. My son was able to successfully complete each game he attempted. And along the way, he gained some excellent programming skills. I also really appreciated the character lessons he learned (patience and perseverance, not to mention goal-setting). These were a great by-product of Scratch game programming!

Our family gives definite thumbs up to Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games. I think it would be well-suited for teens who were learning to program on their own, or for elementary-school students working alongside a parent. The games are challenging but not too hard, and there’s just enough success a student experiences along the way to keep him desiring to continue on. Mr. Sweigart is a clear and understandable teacher who makes programming both accessible and fun.  We do highly recommend this book. And as a mom, I encourage you to work with your child or teen through Scratch Programming Playground. It’s a fabulous way for you to engage with your kids in the world of online gaming, and it’s a positive relationship builder as well. Plus, you just might learn some amazing things yourselves!

 

-Product review by Melanie Reynolds, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, March, 2017



Another Reviewer’s Perspective:

Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games
Al Sweigart
No Starch Press, Inc.
https://www.nostarch.com/

If you have young children, more than likely they spend a couple of hours a day using electronics - computers, iPads, etc.- playing games. For some, there is nothing that beats spending hours upon hours playing an electronic game. That game they are enjoying was created by someone who has the skill of programming that allowed them to make something so entertaining. Did you know your child or you can learn how to program fun games too?

Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is written by Al Sweigart, a software developer who also teaches children and adults how to program. In his book, Sweigart introduces programmers and those who want to become programmers to the backend of computer games. Not only are they seeing how everything works, but readers are also taught how to create games from conception to development and then to completion. There is as much fun to be had programming games as there is in playing them and Sweigart proves it.

In a time where Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM and STEAM) learning is being highly promoted, we are becoming more familiar with the many academic and professional opportunities open to people in those areas. When children are young, it is a great time to start teaching in that direction. Scratch Programming Playground is written to teach children, as young as eight years old, and to adults who the book will easily appeal, how to program. The projects Sweigart presents as well as the instruction are written in a straightforward manner that is neither juvenile nor too adult for his readers.

Using Scratch, a free programming environment designed by MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, Scratchers (Scratch users) are able to easily create programs. The only skills you need to use the drag-and-drop programming language are basic skills in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. If children are not proficient in all of those areas, do not let that stop them from learning how to program.

Scratch Programmers Playground opens with how to use the book as well as introduces users to the Scratch programming environment. Some of the projects you will create are animated art, a basketball game, making a clone of Fruit Ninja and creating a platformer game with animation. The projects are ones that can be completed independently or in a group. They may be incorporated into a school week or worked on during a few hours or a day of STEM learning during the weekend.

Programmng is a hands-on skill”, a note by Sweigart, is one with which I agree. There is no better way to learn how to program than to actually do it. Along with teaching the discipline aspects of a programmer - coming up with the idea, planning, developing, testing and producing - Sweigart uses easy to follow step-by-step instructions and colorful pictures that make the programming side of computer games easy to learn. The complete code for each project is included, so there is no need for previous programming experience. Scratchers are presented with coding challenges, so they can add unique features to their games. Review questions, with answers in the back of the book, are also included at the end of each chapter that tests what the reader has learned.

Although the book must be read to complete the projects, I would encourage parents who have children desiring to code to work through the projects with their children. Children may understand how to program and use the language in the Scratch environment without being fluent readers.

Scratch Programmers Playground is a great introductory book for children and adults who want to learn how to program. Seeing the other side of a game and learning a computer skill may spark an interest in some children to pursue other STEM opportunities. Even if your children do not have an interest in becoming a programmer, the projects in the book may change their minds.

 

-Product review by Jennifer Smeltser, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, LLC, March, 2017

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