When Jana Uhler transformed an old veterinary clinic into a place where youngsters can drop in or attend camps to work on computer coding, she was sure to include an observation window for the parents.
“As a parent, I always enjoyed being able to watch my kids doing something that they love. A lot of activities that the kids have done, you aren’t really able to watch,” said Uhler, who created the business with her husband, JD Uhler, who also helps run it. “If they are there, too, they are part of that whole process (of the kids learning coding).”
Code Ninjas opened May 21 with drop-in hours, and a series of summer camps begins today. The instructor-led camps cover a variety of topics. Some are for a single day, others run for a week.
On Wednesday, a group of parents and a grandparent were watching from the window as youngsters learned how to code or worked on the hands-on activities set up as a break from the computer work.
Kristina Shatley, of Sun Prairie, said she started bringing her son, Jonah, a fourth-grader at Royal Oaks Elementary School, because he likes coding on his own and she wanted him to meet like-minded people.
Code Ninjas is a coding center where youngsters learn programming by playing popular games like Scratch, Minecraft and Roblox. They can learn four different coding languages and/or applications and build games themselves in the drop-in program.
Code Ninjas is located at 2414 Montana Ave. in the rapidly growing Shoppes of Prairie Lakes area. It is aimed at youths ages 7 to 14. This is the first Code Ninjas franchise to open in Wisconsin.
The company, themed around martial arts, is a game-based curriculum that allows learners to advance from white to black belt. The classroom is called the dojo, the name for a martial arts training place. The curriculum is self-paced, but not self-taught, as learners can get immediate help and encouragement from Code Senseis (Code Ninjas employees) and fellow students as they advance.
The program keeps youngsters motivated with small wins along the way and “Belt-Up” celebrations, where they receive color-coded wristbands to mark their graduation to the next level. By the time they finish the program, they will publish an app in an App store.
During drop-in hours, learners can come at any time, when the clock starts for an hour session. A second hour can be booked but Jana Uhler said it is not recommended for the same reason the hands-on breaks are scheduled at the end of each session.
“We don’t want them to be in front of the computer the whole time,” she said.
Costs range from a $35 Parent’s Night Out program, to $89 to $239 a month for once- or twice-a-week drop-ins. Camps range from $75 to $225.
Dylan Montag, a second-grader at Park Elementary School in Cross Plains who was wearing his black Code Ninjas T-shirt and headband, said doing coding is the “main thing” he likes at Code Ninjas but he also enjoys the hands-on break activities.
Salvador Leaver, a seventh-grader at Madison’s Sennett Middle School, said he wasn’t interested in camps because he wanted free time this summer but then learned about Code Ninjas. His grandfather, Len Lindsay, who started working with computers in 1976 and will be working on special projects at Code Ninjas, sees this as a career path for his grandson.
Zoey Palmer, a fourth-grader at St. Dennis Catholic School in Madison, said when she came to try out Code Ninjas, she finished a music game in 15 minutes and was hooked.
“I absolutely love it,” Zoey said about coding.
The Uhlers, of Sun Prairie, are combining their backgrounds of technology and teaching by bringing this new kind of coding concept to the community. They also are the parents of Clara, 11, and Ada, 8.
Jana Uhler has been an educator for 18 years and teaches students who are blind and visually impaired in the Madison School District. She is also a part of the Assistive Technology Department, where she works with staff and students on providing accessible educational materials through technology. In addition to spending 15 years in IT project management, JD Uhler also owns and operates his own management consulting business.
“I was that 7-year-old Ninja. I wanted to learn programming at a young age. There was no place to do it,” said JD Uhler, who eventually taught himself.