The Madison area has seen an uptick in programs that strive to teach children how to code over the past few years, from after-school programs to clubs and summer camps. Now, a for-profit kids coding center has joined the mix.

Code Ninjas, which opened last week down the road from Prairie View Middle School in Sun Prairie, is part of a massive and rapidly growing franchise that teaches children ages 7 through 14 about programming and robotics. Code Ninjas already has dozens of locations across 40 states. Recently, it opened its first location in the U.K. The Sun Prairie location is Wisconsin’s first.

The business at 2414 Montana Ave. is colorful, popping with lime green and baby blue furniture and decoration, and brims with technology. Its classroom — a kids-only sanctum, with parents asked to not go past the lobby — has rows of desks with laptops and computer monitors, along with a play area featuring robots and other educational technological gizmos.

"It's fun. It's colorful. It's a fun place to come hang out with friends,” said Jana Uhler, who opened the location with her husband, J.D. Uhler.

Code Ninjas, as the name suggests, aims to evoke a martial arts dojo. Students, or “ninjas”, learning coding languages like Javascript and C Sharp, largely through activities centered on building and playing games. Along the way, they earn belts to mark their progress — although instead of a belt on a gi, students simply receive a colored wristband.

“You start with a white belt, just like in karate and whatnot,” said J.D. “That’s what you get right away. When you get to a black belt, the ultimate goal is they can publish their own app to the app store, or the Google Play store.”

The road to a black belt is a long one, with a lot of technological savvy accrued along the way. It takes months for a student to earn his or her next belt, and years for them to attain the highest level. That’s one of the key factors differentiating the business from other camps and programs, said J.D.: Children can sign up for a long-term commitment to a coding education at Coding Ninjas.

“Those other programs are temporary. This is year-round,” he said. “You progress. It's really like a coding school.”

Instead of holding scheduled classes, students can drop in at their own convenience to pick up where they left off on self-paced learning software. The location has a team of eight part-time “senseis” — college students with a programming background, said Jana — who are there to help them if they need it.

Students are taught to be self-reliant, said J.D. If they raise their hand, the sensei will not always come over right away.

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“That's what programming is all about. If they do it as a profession someday, they'll have to debug their own code,” J.D. said.

The Uhlers said they opened the Code Ninjas location because of their long-harbored dream to own a business, and because it aligned with their respective backgrounds. Jana used to teach, while J.D. has long worked in information technology.

The two say they hope their business will help ready youth for a future built on automation and data science. Jana also said that they hope to bring more girls into the STEM fields — she said that they’ve been talking with local girl scout troops about potentially signing up.

The business is less than two weeks old, but already has a few dozen students. Some of them are relatively new to the world of coding and video games. Most, said Jana, are already excited.

“A lot of the kids we've seen are highly self-motivated. They want to come in. They love gaming. They've played Minecraft, they've done Roblox. They have some prior knowledge of it,” said Jana.

Meanwhile, the business has a busy schedule heading into the summer. After its grand opening party on Saturday, it will begin hosting short summer camp programs in addition to its normal drop-in enrollment.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.