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Transforming screen time: Kids can use smartphones to enhance their creativity

Too many apps treat young people as passive consumers, not motivated makers. But there are alternatives.

Creating things in the OctoStudio app from the MIT Media Lab involves graphical coding blocks.MIT Media Lab

Ana Carolina, 10 years old, lives with her mother and younger sister in one of 900 apartments in a low-cost housing complex in Brazil. When she wakes up in the morning, she likes watching parrots fly off the branches of a tree outside her window. So when Ana Carolina had the opportunity to try out a new mobile-phone coding app at the local community center, she knew what she wanted to create.

As a backdrop for her project, Ana Carolina used a photo of the sunrise that she had taken from her apartment. Then she added a parrot emoji to the scene and programmed it to move by snapping together graphical coding blocks that instructed the parrot how far, how fast, and in which direction to move. At first, she wasn’t happy with the straight-line movement of the animated parrot on the phone. “Real parrots jump up and swoop down and fly back up,” she said. After a mentor explained how to use angles in her coding blocks to make the parrot turn, Ana Carolina revised her program and was delighted with the resulting animation.


Ana Carolina called over her 13-year-old cousin Davyd to see the project on the phone, and she explained how she had used angles to control the parrot’s motion. Davyd was impressed. “When my teacher talks about angles, it makes no sense to me,” he said. “You should come and teach my class!” Ana Carolina couldn’t wait to show her project to her mother: “She’s going to love this animation.”

Parrot animation created in OctoStudio
Ana Carolina's parrot animation created using mobile app OctoStudio.

I share Ana Carolina’s story as a counterpoint to the ways that many children and teens around the world are using mobile phones. Countless young people use phones primarily for watching videos and scrolling through social media, and parents and educators are concerned — with good reason.


But there are alternatives. With appropriate apps and support, mobile phones can provide opportunities for young people to imagine, create, and share projects, as Ana Carolina did in her parrot animation project.

These types of creative activities are more important now than ever before. With the pace of change accelerating, young people will face unpredictable challenges throughout their lives — and the proliferation of artificial intelligence technologies will further accelerate the disruptions. To deal with the uncertainties of this complex world, young people need to develop their abilities to think and act creatively.

Unfortunately, mobile technologies are too often designed to deliver entertainment, information, or instruction, treating young people as consumers, not creators.

In many traditional childhood activities, children develop their creative abilities by making things: building towers with wooden blocks and Lego bricks, drawing pictures with crayons and markers, making musical patterns with drums and bells.

Why not take the same approach with new technologies? That’s what we do in the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab: We develop technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, enable young people to playfully create things they care about.

A student in Brazil shows an interactive game that she created on a phone using OctoStudio.Brazilian Creative Learning Network

In the past, our group developed the Scratch programming language, which enables young people to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations, and then share their creations with one another in an online community. More than 100 million young people around the world have created projects with Scratch since the software launched in 2007. I’m continually amazed and delighted by the diverse range of creative projects that young people create with Scratch — including science simulations, interactive newsletters, how-to tutorials, remixes of classic video games, collaborative stories, and calls to action for social causes.


Young people can create Scratch projects on laptops and desktop computers, but not on mobile phones. We designed Scratch for larger screens, so that young people could easily put together graphical programming blocks and see the resulting games and animations all on the same screen. For a long time, we weren’t sure whether it would be possible to design an easy-to-use general-purpose coding interface for the smaller screens of mobile phones.

But as phones got into the hands of more and more young people — and, in many parts of the world, became the only digital technology they would ever have access to — we felt a growing sense of urgency to develop ways for them to design and create projects on phones.

My longtime collaborator Natalie Rusk became especially motivated to address this problem after talking with an educator in Uganda named Solomon Bwire, who was organizing workshops for children during the pandemic. In Solomon’s community, very few children had access to computers, but many had access to mobile phones. Searching online for a free coding app for phones, Solomon found that someone had created one, but it was hard to use, it was full of bugs, and it crashed often. When Solomon met with Natalie as part of an Africa Code Week initiative, he emphasized the importance of developing an easy-to-use coding app for phones.


Natalie began working with Paula Bontá, Kreg Hanning, and others in our Lifelong Kindergarten group to design a new coding app with an interface better suited to small screens and taking advantage of the special features of mobile phones, such as built-in sensors.

We named the app OctoStudio, with an octopus as the featured character.

Young people have used prototypes of the app to create a wide variety of games and animations. And since it’s on a phone, they’ve been able to create projects anytime and anywhere, whether they’re riding on a bus or waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Using the sensors in phones, they have created projects that don’t just live on the screen but engage with the physical world. Some examples: turning a phone into a musical instrument by programming it to play different sounds when someone shakes or tilts it; attaching a phone to a stuffed animal and programming it to say different phrases whenever someone hugs it; creating new types of collaborative projects that “beam” signals from one phone to another.

We’ve shared OctoStudio prototypes with several dozen educators around the world, including Solomon in Uganda and others in Brazil, Chile, South Africa, India, Korea, and the United States. The educators tried out the prototypes with young people in their communities, provided feedback, and suggested new images and examples to add to the app that reflected the interests and cultural experiences of people in their communities.


Ana Carolina with MIT researcher Thaís Xisto.Homeless Workers Movement

In Chile, a group of schoolchildren walked on a hillside and took photos of plants and animals with their phones, then used the OctoStudio app to integrate the photos into animated stories about the local environment. In Uganda, two friends used the app to create an interactive game in which an animated chicken moves across the screen as you tilt the phone — and speaks in Swahili when the chicken finds water. In Brazil, Lifelong Kindergarten graduate student Thaís Xisto, who grew up in Brazil, organized workshops including the one where Ana Carolina created her parrot animation.

We also tried out the OctoStudio prototypes at Clubhouse after-school learning centers, a global network of 120 sites specifically for young people from marginalized communities. “The majority of my youth don’t have Wi-Fi at home,” says Dolores Hernandez, who introduced OctoStudio prototypes to youth at a Clubhouse in San Antonio, Texas. “They don’t have laptops or desktops. But most of them have access to a cell phone, and that means they also have access to this app. And what that is going to do is spread the love for creating.”

A girl in a Brazilian community center shows her friend how to start making projects using OctoStudio.Homeless Workers Movement

After several years of iteratively revising the prototypes, we launched OctoStudio publicly in app stores this week, free of charge and including translations in more than 20 languages. We hope it will serve as a model for how young people can make creative use of mobile phones. As we saw in Ana Carolina’s case, young people are most likely to engage creatively when they work on projects based on their personal interests and experiences (as Ana Carolina’s project was inspired by the parrots she saw from her window), learn new skills in the process (as Ana Carolina experimented with the mathematics of angles), and create things that they want to share with others (as Ana Carolina did with her cousin and mother).

We also hope that OctoStudio will also help to shift the ways that parents and educators think about mobile phones. Many parents and educators are focused on how to limit the time their children spend interacting with phones. But it’s important to distinguish between the different ways that children engage with the devices: an hour spent as a consumer is very different from an hour spent as a creator.

Rather than trying to minimize screen time, I think parents and teachers should try to maximize creativity time.

Mitchel Resnick is professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the Lifelong Kindergarten research group.