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From left, Zachary Mountain, 8, Aidan Mountain, 10 and Kyle Spencer, 10, enjoyed the short, hands-on format of their coding class. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
From left, Zachary Mountain, 8, Aidan Mountain, 10 and Kyle Spencer, 10, enjoyed the short, hands-on format of their coding class. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

SKILLS DEVELOPMENT

Code secrets for growing techies Add to ...

It’s never too early to get a head start on your career, at least not according to Rebecca Mountain and Marc Spencer. That’s why the couple recently enrolled their three boys – aged 8 to 10 – in Code for Kids, a computer skills training workshop for children.

“In this day and age, you’ve got to know HTML, you need to know code language, for any career,” Ms. Mountain said during a mid-afternoon break in the program’s inaugural Toronto class on HTML and CSS.

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“This is an activity that they really enjoy, and they can get way ahead in a skill that’s going to be useful for them in the future,” Mr. Spencer added.

As Lucas Marcelli, managing director and co-founder of Code for Kids, calls out directions from an interactive display in the boardroom of class sponsor Shopify Inc., a developer of e-commerce software, a team of volunteers and staff helps the kids through each step. Even though Mr. Spencer and Ms. Mountain’s children are spending the afternoon in a classroom environment, the experience is considerably different than what they’re used to in school.

“This is 10 times better. School is boring,” said 10-year-old Kyle Spencer, who wants to have a career in robotics.

“You get to go on computers for two hours, it’s shorter, and there’s free snacks,” added his eight-year-old brother Zachary Mountain, who wants to design video games.

Code for Kids is one of many new programs available in Canada to help children get a head start on some of the technical skills they will need in their future careers. Parents like Ms. Mountain and Mr. Spencer believe that learning such skills will be vitally important for their children’s futures, even though such courses aren’t part of their school’s curriculum.

“They complain a lot about the traditional school system and what they’re learning. They don’t see how it’s of any use to them,” Mr. Spencer said. “Something like this is more practical and more relatable to them.”

Code for Kids was founded last September as a non-profit organization, and held its first class in Ottawa in May, 2013, using Raspberry Pi, a small, single-board computer developed for training purposes.

“In July of 2013 we had our second event, and that was another big hit,” said Julian Nadeau, co-founder and program director of Code for Kids and a software developer for Shopify. “Then we did another in September on design and blogging, that was again a big hit, at which point I realized it was getting really big and we had a chance to do something really cool.”

Code for Kids now offers courses in Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston and Montreal, with plans to expand to Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax this year. Classes range from coding to blogging to circuit building for children aged 7 to 13, with events taking place at each location every two to three months. Courses range from two to three hours and cost $29 unless they require additional materials that students can bring home, such as basic circuit boards, which cost an additional $30.

Mr. Nadeau founded the program believing that these skills are critical for all students, no matter what career path they choose.

“Even if you are in a non-programming field, your career is going to need some kind of programming background,” he said. “Some of my good friends are English majors, and they went to apply for copy editing positions and their job descriptions listed HTML and CSS knowledge required.”

Beyond the technical skills participants acquire, such programming courses also allow children to explore their creativity.

“Instead of telling the students exactly what to do every single class every single moment, we tell them ‘These are the possibilities of the technology you have in front of you. Open your computer and have fun,’” said Alex Buk, co-founder of Kids Great Minds, which provides computer skills training courses throughout Southern and Southwestern Ontario for children age six and older.

Mr. Buk and his wife Sonia Karabin founded Kids Great Minds in Mississauga four years ago when they noticed that their children lacked an understanding of basic computer skills.

“They are expected to know how to use a computer without any type of training,” Mr. Buk said. “They are not being taught simple things like [Microsoft] Office products. Needless to say, they don’t know how to program computers or use logic or analytical skills for that matter.”

Kids Great Minds offers a wide range of computer-based training programs throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Programs range from $150 to $250 and last eight to 12 hours, with courses available over summer holidays, long weekends, March break and after school.

Mr. Buk and Ms. Karabin said they have received an incredibly positive response since founding the program, especially from parents whose children are struggling in school.

“We found that a lot of kids with special needs, they are really engaged,” Ms. Karabin said. “They need an instant reward. They write a line of code, and when they want to see how it’s working, it’s instant.”

While Ms. Mountain said she is thrilled to see all of her boys so engaged in what they’re learning, she can’t help but show a little extra pride for eight-year-old Zachary, who sometimes struggles in school.

“He doesn’t learn like other kids; he has a hard time in the traditional classroom,” she said. “I have never seen him have so much fun. … He sees a purpose to what he’s doing here.”

Ms. Mountain and Mr. Spencer are so enthused that they made a donation to the program beyond the $29 fee per student.

“I’m so happy I brought them here; I just hope they run more of them,” Ms. Mountain said. “This is what they love, but this is also the future. In the future, everyone will need to know how to code.”

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