Give Kids a Healthy Itch – The Health Care Blog


by KIM BELLARD

Someday I’ll probably write about Neuralink, but these days I don’t feel like giving Elon Musk any extra publicity. I also had the notion to take OpenAI’s newly announced ChatGPT down a rabbit hole about U.S. healthcare, just to see where it would go, but Mr. Musk has his fingerprints on that organization too.  Then I saw something worth celebrating: Scratch has hit 100 million users worldwide

What’s that? You’re not familiar with Scratch? Well, me neither, until last week. Now that I know a little about it, I kind of feel how I felt when I first discovered TikTok, found out about Roblox, or learned about Raspberry Pi. In all cases, there were big ecosystems aimed at young people, getting them to view tech-related things (e.g., gaming, coding, even building computers) as something natural, something fun, something easy to do, and those ecosystems were largely invisible to most adults.

I’m still waiting for the ecosystem that makes health like that for young people.   

Scratch modestly describes itself as a “coding platform for children.” 

It is a project from the MIT Media Lab, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group there in 2007.  That group:

develops technologies, activities, and communities to engage young people, from all backgrounds, in creative learning experiences, so they can develop their thinking, their voices, and their identities. We are deeply committed to bringing about change in the world and improving the lives of young people, especially those from communities that face systemic inequities and injustices.   

Scratch now is “the world’s largest coding community for children and a coding language with a simple visual interface that allows young people to create digital stories, games, and animations,” and is available in 70 languages, in over 200 countries. It is overseen by the Scratch Foundation, whose mission “is to ensure that Scratch and ScratchJr are available for free, for everyone, so that kids around the world can express their ideas through coding.”

It is aimed at ages 8 to 16, “but is used by people of all ages” (that “lifelong” in Lifelong Kindergarten really does have meaning, it turns out). It gives users ideas about projects they could do, lets them explore projects others have done, and, of course, gives them tools to create their own projects, using “a coding language with a simple visual interface that allows young people to create digital stories, games, and animations.“  

All this, Scratch believes, “promotes computational thinking and problem solving skills; creative teaching and learning; self-expression and collaboration; and equity in computing.” On the 15th anniversary last year, Shawna Young, the Scratch Foundation executive director, said:

Kids just enjoy it, it is fun. They are able to create these projects. It is based on this idea of yes, you are learning, developing computational skills, but at the heart of the work you are really having fun and creating something you care about.

The kids may not realize they’re learning computational thinking and problem-solving skills; they think they’re having fun. One hundred million users can’t all be wrong. Mitch Resnick, Professor at the MIT Media Lab and the Founder of Scratch, believes: “We developed Scratch to provide young people with opportunities to imagine, create, share, and learn, and we continue to be amazed by what they create and how they support one another.”

That 100 million user Scratch community is bigger, by the way, than the Roblox or Raspberry Pi communities, although, unfortunately, well short of TikTok. In a different world…

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Health care, on the other hand, is not fun. Oh, navigating it requires, among other things, a lot of problem-solving skills, learning, and collaboration, but trying to teach those kinds of coping skills to young people doesn’t seem high on anyone’s list of things-to-do in our healthcare system. Health care for most young people – oh, just say “people” generally – is a frustrating, confusing, slow, and largely opaque process. 

Even more broadly, learning how to live a healthy life is one of the most important life skills we should be imparting to young people, and we’re failing badly. I’m not sure what health education curriculums in schools look like these days, but I doubt they have much to teach the Lifelong Kindergarten group. 

Kids have natural tendencies to be active, but modern life steers many away – too little time outside, too little time in free play, too much time on screens or sitting passively in classrooms. Parents may try to teach kids to learn healthy eating habits, but those efforts are confounded at every turn: such food competes with processed food that has literally been engineered to maximize cravings, even addiction, and may be both harder to find and more expensive.    

We are not developing the next generation of healthy adults. We are doing the opposite: we are condemning millions of young people to a life filled with chronic diseases, with all the limitations those will impose and all the interactions with the healthcare system they will require.

We need a Lifelong Kindergarten for health. Something that “develops technologies, activities, and communities to engage young people, from all backgrounds, in creative learning experiences” about their health. Something that does so by making it fun and fostering creativity. 

Hey, I’m no kid, but sign me up. 

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Despite the existence of pediatricians and children’s hospitals, we don’t have a different health care system for young people. It exists within the framework of our larger healthcare system, with all its flaws and frustrations. If we were going to design an entirely new healthcare system, it might be nice to start with one that is aimed at young people, but that’s not going to happen.

So the least we could do — the very least — is to help young people think about health, to find ways to collaborate on supporting healthy behaviors, even to create ways to deal with health issues differently.  And do all that while making it fun and engaging. 

Coding can be daunting too – ask most people who were born pre-PC, pre-internet – but Scratch has figured out ways that young people can learn about it without realizing they’re doing something hard. I don’t know what that would look like for health, but I sure hope someone can figure it out. 

Scratch for Health!



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