Researchers at the MIT Media Lab, Tufts University, and Playful Invention Company have designed ScratchJr, an iPad app designed to teach the basic principles behind coding languages to very young children.

ScratchJr’s main audience is students as young as 5–7 years old, common ages for Kindergarten students. The app allows users to join a wide variety of programming “blocks” together to form different actions for the on-screen characters, such as moving, jumping, talking, or even changing size. Users also have the options to create unique characters in a paint editor, even able to customize these avatars by uploading their own photos and voices—they can then use the programming blocks to bring their new characters to life on the screen.

ScratchJr was inspired by its parent app Scratch, also developed at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is currently used around the world by children 8 years old and up. To adapt Scratch for a younger audience, the interface was redesigned with younger children in mind.

The new app was made possible by a National Science Foundation funded $1.3 million research grant, which aims to help children learn to think creatively and reason systematically. So far, it appears to be money well spent.

One incredible feat that ScratchJr accomplishes is reaching an audience who largely cannot read, giving them a considerable head start on critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Marina Umaschi Bers, co-developer of ScratchJr stated, “We don’t want necessarily every young child to become a computer scientist or to work as an engineer, but we want every young child to be exposed to these new ways of thinking that coding makes possible.”

While the app is currently only available on the iPad, there are plans to expand it to web browsers and smartphones as well.

ScratchJr is currently in use at in Kindergarten classrooms at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School in Medford, MA. There is also a pilot program that teachers across the nation can sign up for if they are interested in bringing ScratchJr to their classrooms.