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My students are currently working on a Scratch video game project. Walk into my second, fourth and sixth hours and you’ll see a general buzz that goes from slightly noisy to intense silence. They are locked in and focussed, sometimes arguing about the best scripts to use for a particular game.

This is a far cry from last year, where students didn’t finish their games and sat back starting at their computers in frustration. However, this is now the third semester of doing this project and I’ve learned a few things along the way:

  1. Start out with a recipe and then let them do a mashup before finally starting a game from scratch. I have students start with the Pong game (where there are directions on Scratch) followed by modifying the Hide and Seek game. I give them the guiding question, “What can we do to make this more challenging, more fun and more addicting?”
  2. Provide small cheat sheets and tutorials for students who still need extra support. This might make me sound like a traditionalist but I think handouts can have a place in a classroom — especially if it’s something offered as a free resource rather than a mandatory assignment.
  3. Spend time talking about what is really going on in a game at any given time. Talk about the concepts of sprites and costumes, movements, controls, data, sound, etc. I actually model it out kinesthetically and then have them dissect a popular game like Flappy Birds.
  4. Have them sketch things out and make flow charts if they need to. A lot of students benefited from a t-chart breaking up sprites (objects) and scripts (actions). This extra work actually saved time. Sometimes you have to get away from the computer to have it work.
  5. Push group collaboration even if it’s an individual work. Take the time to have students stop periodically and give feedback on one another’s work.
  6. Take more time. This was a hard lesson for me. The entire project takes about three weeks. I can take shortcuts but if I do, there’s a cost to it.
  7. Spend more time on the planning piece. I now have a section where students plan the objective, theme, characters, etc. We look at a game through the lens of storytelling, using the Elements of Literature.
  8. Model the process for students. I do short mini-lessons showing what I’m currently working on. I’m creating a game called Unicorn Hunter, where you shoot unicorns (the trick is that it’s a photo shoot and hunting simply means finding them). I always make sure to mention areas where I am frustrated. Students need to see that creative work isn’t always fun. Sometimes you hit moments of extreme disappointment.

The biggest take-home for me is that, like any other creative work, it often begins with being somewhat unoriginal at first.  It’s also a reminder that inherit limitations actually create opportunities.  So, while I am continuing to learn what it means to make this project work well, it is actually helping me to think more deeply about the creative process in the classroom.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • John Larmer says:

    Great point, John – we too try to help prevent PBL teacher burnout by recommending they not try to invent new projects all the time. Would you consider letting us repost this on our blog at the Buck Institute for Education?
    [email protected]

  • Good work on the course. Interesting how much the things you did fit with learning research.

    1: Patterns (schemas) as scaffolding.

    2: More scaffolding.

    3: Problem solving in deep learning?

    4: Problem solving, multiple representations.

    5: "Learn together" part of structured teaching.

    6: Aye, novices need time, more than experts expect.

    7: Patterns and self-created scaffolds.

    8: Modeling, including emotional reactions – kudos for including that.

    You know all this, of course.

    I'm going to be working on a programming course to run this summer, for undergrads in business schools. If it's OK, I'll send you a link to the course design.


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