The new ninjas

As the final day closed on his Game Builders’ Club camp, Desi, a 7-year-old Code Ninjas camper, quickly added one more graphic to his Cat in the City game.

He raised his hand, ready to share what he had been working on all week. 

When he presented his game to the other campers, they oohed and aahed in excitement as the cat moved on the screen. 

“The cat has to eat all the food,” Desi explained. “Then, when I’m done, I like to watch [the cat] bounce around.”

Desi had been using a program called Scratch, a visual-programming language and online community geared toward kids. 

It’s just one of the programs kids use at Code Ninjas, a fast-growing Texas-based education franchise with four new Minnesota locations, offering an array of summer camps as well as year-round programming using a games-based curriculum for ages 7 to 14. 

While coding might not sound all that exciting to some grownups, many digital-native kids find it incredibly fun and rewarding. After all, some of kids’ favorite games — Scratch, Minecraft and Roblox — are built right into the Code Ninjas curriculum.

Camps this year at the Edina location, for example, will include the aforementioned Game Builders’ Club, Beginning JavaScript, Minecraft Create, Code Drones, Roblox Create and, new this year, Snap It Together (using Snap Circuits) and App Builders’ Club, plus four other new offerings.

Weeklong summer camps — offered in the morning or afternoon Monday–Friday — last 3.5 hours. Parents can sign up kids for two different sessions to create a full day of camp, which includes lunch. Early drop-offs and late pick-ups are available for an extra charge. On select days year-round, full-day camps are offered and include a variety of coding and STEM activities, plus lunch.

Dojos plus sensei

At Code Ninjas’ coding centers, coding happens year-round in each center’s “dojo” with teachers (“sensei”) serving
as mentors, who guide children through established curricula. As kids become proficient in certain levels of coding, they gain higher belts. 

When kids reach black belt, they get to post their own games on an app store.

“And we help them do that,” said Jon Blood, Code Ninjas’ Twin Cities Area Developer and Owner. “All the way from building that app — to the marketing and individual content that follows — we will help them.”

Sensei — high school or college students or other adults — are STEM focused, proficient in coding and work well with kids. 

“Our sensei build a relationship with our students and mentor those kids,” Blood said. “Our model is not self-taught, it’s self-guided, so we’re here to help them at any stage. What we really see is a lot of collaboration going on with the kids and sensei.”

Sensei Audrey Mitchell said coding can be tricky at first for kids who have never tried it. 

“Some of these kids may not have anything that they are good at in school,” Mitchell said. “But then they come here, and coding is something they are good at and helps them come out of their shell.”

Learning a language

According to Blood, the fact that coding isn’t offered as an ongoing class in school — or is only minimally addressed due to funding — is what’s made the company’s reach expand so quickly. 

During its first 12 months, more than 100 franchises opened, with the Edina location becoming Minnesota’s first in May 2018. Other local coding centers are in Eagan, Chanhassen and Prior Lake/Savage. Eight more locations are listed as coming soon to the Twin Cities, and there are plans for 339 centers in 38 states.

While camps are a large part of Code Ninjas’ focus during the summer, the company was actually built with a year-round drop-off model in mind: Parents
can drop their kids off after school or on weekends for up to two hours a week of coding while they either leave or stay on site in a parents’ lounge.

“It’s the fastest-growing educational franchise right now in the U.S,” Blood said. “And what better way to learn how to code than by building and playing their very own video games.”

The idea for Code Ninjas started when Texas-based computer programmer and entrepreneur David Graham decided he wanted to equip his two children with the important skills needed for an increasingly digital future. (Previously, Graham was the founder of Coder Camps, a program that teaches adults to be successful software developers.)

Graham believes the problem-solving, math, resourcefulness, patience and confidence that coding requires can help kids, no matter what careers they go into as adults. 

Coding, according to some, is fast becoming “the new literacy” — as important to kids as a second language. 

Coding as a calling

Mitchell said Code Ninjas helps kids learn perseverance and independent thinking, too. 

“Working through problems on their own, figuring out how to troubleshoot when things aren’t working and how to be creative with games on their own is one of the most important lessons in Code Ninjas,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell also believes the technology skills Code Ninjas offers can become invaluable to students as technology continues to boom. 

With a huge gap in the number of tech jobs available and the number of people who are qualified, Code Ninjas is creating workers who will be able to use and create modern technology, she said. 

“If students learn the basics of coding now,” Mitchell said, “it will be so much easier for them in the future and will open up so many more opportunities for them.” 

Abby Doeden is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a local freelance writer.