When we want children to grasp structures and shapes, we let them play with Legos. When we want them to understand programming, we'll let them play with Scratch, the latest child-oriented program to poke its beak from MIT's prolific Media Lab.

Scratch is a free animation-development program for kids that converts the main elements of programming--like objects, actions, rules, and conditions--into simple blocks you can drag from the menu list and drop into the scripting area. Snap a few of these together, "like Lego bricks," says Scratch mastermind Mitchel Resnick, and you create a script that makes your "sprite" speak, play music, move across the screen, or interact with other sprites.

The controls are intuitive enough for kids to begin with simple maneuvers, such as making the orange cat sprite walk forward and meow, but also complex enough to build interactive games or run elaborate scripts, like this break dance video that makes use of trigger buttons and effects.

As a nonprogrammer myself, I appreciate any WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) color-coded breakdown to give me a first taste of success and hint of wider horizons. The scripting area and embedded preview window became a playground for trial and error, and the thorough help options filled in the rest.

Like nearly all Internet products these days, Scratch also contains social networking elements. You can upload your completed creation to the Scratch Web site. Downloading another member's project opens the script and animation in your local app, allowing you to build on another's design or unlock their programming secrets.

It should be no surprise if Scratch's philosophy to make programming concepts understandable and fun reminds you of Sugar, the interactive GUI for One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Resnick, its lead architect, spearheaded Scratch in the same MIT Media Lab cofounded by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. The message these two major initiatives are sending should be as easy to decode as Scratch's colored building-block scripts--the online imagination belongs to everyone, and anyone can learn with the right approach and access.

Itching to try out Scratch? Get it now from CNET Download.com.

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.