Critique: Scratch

scratchScratch is a colorful, visually-appealing programming tool for children and teenagers. It was developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, “with financial support from the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, Intel Foundation, Nokia, and MIT Media Lab research consortia.” With this impressive pedigree, it is impressive that Scratch is also free software. Scratch is built on Squeak, a free, open-source tool which uses SmallTalk.

Scratch is currently in version 1.3.1 with updated versions released roughly semi-annually. The software can be downloaded from the Scratch website at MIT. The download screen presents you with an optional form for some personal information but a link to the Scratch privacy policy states: “You do not have to tell us anything about yourselves to download the Scratch software. When you download the Scratch software, we give you the option of telling us some things about yourself, but you do not have to fill in any of this information if you don’t want to.” Every item on the form is optional, so you could choose to disclose your country but not your city or school.

Students can use Scratch to make simple (or complex) interactive programs like games, cartoons, simulations, and much more. I have used Scratch in my work with 8th graders for three years now and it never fails to capture their interest and creativity. Scratch programs are saved in a .sb format which is small and easily emailed or up/downloaded. These cannot be opened by other software, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem thanks to the Scratch website. With a simple click on the Share button, your Scratch programs are uploaded to the Scratch website and turned into Java applets which can be played right there on the page or embedded into other webpages.

The shared Scratch files also have a kid-friendly Creative Commons license applied to them automatically. Called a License to Play, this agreement attempts to ensure that credit is given for using others’ ideas and also to develop an awareness of sharing in general. In addition to the cc-license, remixing of projects is encouraged and enabled through easy downloads of the original .sb file. Sharing a remix up to the site automatically creates a notation for the project with the name of the original programmer and a link to her/his program. The overall user experience is friendly and open.


Freedom: There is only one version of Scratch and it is free of cost and encumbrance. Scratch is therefore both freely available and freely distributable.

Privacy: Users are not required to disclose any personal information to download and enable the software. Teens and adults are asked to provide an email address in order to create an account on the Scratch website. (The email address is only used for password recovery.) Children are not asked for email addresses and all other information (name, location) is optional.

Openness: Scratch’s underlying source code is freely available and “unofficial” customizations have popped up here and there (most notably a scrolling background extension). The Scratch website is an excellent resources and includes support forums which any member can use. Individual Scratch programs are cc-licensed when they are shared to the Scratch website.

Control: The software is “officially” developed by the MIT folks and although user input is frequently sought and incorporated into updates, the development itself is closed (i.e. you cannot join the development team). The Scratch team develops and shares this software is a highly visible, public manner and encourages individual initiatives provided that the Scratch “branding” remains pure.

Scratch scores very well in the catagories of Freedom and Privacy but could do a bit better in  Openness and Control. It does, however, meet the criteria of all four catagories, earning it a Platinum rating here on

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