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Choosing the right coding summer camp for your kid: 9 questions to ask

Not all coding camps are created equal. Here's what you need to know.

"Learn to code" has become a catchphrase for preparing youngsters for the future job market—and yet most elementary and high schools don't offer computer programming as part of their core curriculum. To serve the market of both parents who want to give their children a leg up in the field and computer-crazed kids who want to create their own video games before they even get to college, a whole ecosystem of institutions that fit under the umbrella of "coding camps" has sprung up. And they're increasingly popular: In the summer of 2018, more than 50,000 students attended coding camps

But there are all sorts of coding camps, including after-school programs, summer day camps, and sleepover camps with dorms. Within each category, there is a broad spectrum of quality and pedagogical approaches. Which one you should choose depends on what you and your kid most want to get out of the experience. We spoke to a number of parents whose children have attended programming camps, as well as current and former camp employees, to find out the right questions to ask when making this important decision. Here are nine to get started:

1. Does your child actually want to go to a coding camp?

This one might seem incredibly obvious, but it's also true that lots of parents misinterpret a general interest in computers as an intent to become a developer—or sometimes parents railroad their children into doing something because it's educational. But unless a kid is in the mindset to participate at a programming camp, it ends up being a waste of time and effort for instructors, and the kids don't get much out of it either.

"Right now, I have a Minecraft server programming in JavaScript class that's got six kids," says game developer John Hattan, who works at an after-school game programming company. "After a couple of classes, it turned out that two of the kids were actually interested in writing code to build stuff in their Minecraft world. The rest just saw the word Minecraft and figured that'd be more fun than after-school daycare. That's frustrating for me as a teacher, and it's frustrating for the parents because they just paid good money for their kid to play Minecraft for an hour." 

2. What will they do when they're there?

Make sure that a camp is going to match up with your kids' expectations. Not all coding camps cater to the same interests, and there are a variety of curricula and offerings.

In some cases, the variety can be good, as it can help your child explore and learn what they do—and don't—like. Amy Worley took her son to a CoderDojo to explore some of its offerings when he was 7 years old. "His interest varied," she says. "When he was learning HTML and creating a web page, he thought it was boring: 'It's like making a newspaper.' But when he was using Scratch [an online programming tool for kids] and making games, he was really into it."  

But not all experiences like this are equal. Some live up to expectations, while others don't. So do your research. "Later, when he was 11 or 12, we did a week of coding camp at SoPro, but it turns out they mostly just played games all day," says Worley. "Had I known that would be the case, I wouldn't have paid for him to attend."

Sometimes your kid's ideas of what coding entails is far beyond what's possible in an introductory coding course. Some expectations setting is necessary. "Most of my classes involve Scratch," says Hattan, "and while it's a lot of fun to use and lets you make a game really quickly, it's limited in what you can make. Inevitably, I have one or two boys entering my class confident that they'll be making the latest Xbox game—only 10 times awesomer!—only to find that we'll be making projects more on the level of Pac-Man or Pong."

3. Will your kid find it challenging enough?

One reason to learn the details of what's covered at a coding camp is that you want your child to be challenged, not bored. That means sitting down with your kid and finding out where they are in their own journey and how that matches up with the offerings at a potential camp. 

"I normally look for subjects I don't know and want to learn more about, or things I'm too busy to learn by myself," says Miguel Piedrafita, a teenager who has attended multiple coding camps. "I do worry that the coursework won't be challenging enough, and that has happened a few times. But it normally isn't a problem, as the instructors are happy to give me more complex assignments or even free time so I can work on my own stuff." If you think your child might be ahead of their peers, you'll want to make sure that instructors have the bandwidth to work with them on extra assignments so they can make the best use of the experience.

4. How is the learning environment structured? 

Many parents and kids have a pretty good idea of their ideal learning environment. Alina Adams, an educational consultant and writer, says for her, "the most important aspect of the class is that it isn’t rigidly married to a set curriculum but lets kids pursue what they're interested in, as well as go at their own pace—nothing 'one size fits all' but with a lot of opportunities to experiment and explore." Her search for an ideal class for her son led her to compile and publish lists of STEM camps and coding classes in the New York area.

Mess Wright, executive director of WorkChops Makerspace in Dallas, breaks down pedagogical philosophies into two categories. The first is what she calls achievement- and product-based code schools, which are analogous to karate programs where you earn a belt as you progress. "These places teach computer science fundamentals and then offer specific tracks, like game dev, app making, or mixing audio and video," she says. "There does tend to be a lot of focus on showing parents and others a finished, working product. Sometimes, this even means having a learner simply follow a tutorial from start to finish so as to say, 'Your child made this app and is now an app developer!'"

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The second category, which Wright's own school falls into, is what she refers to as "makerspaces" or "fab labs." She says these focus "on the experience of making, fabrication, and exposure to many programming languages as well as hardware, software, electronics—even other sciences—and how all those disciplines come together. Very few children cannot find something to be passionate about with that varied offering."

The style that's right for your kid depends on their personality. Wright says product-based schools are great for the true coder, "but not all tech-curious kids will fall in love, probably because they are taught in such a linear way." They're best for kids who want "a structure and a digital end product, she says.

Makerspaces are "a little free form and open ended, leaving room for failure, creativity, and real-world problem solving," she adds. "The biggest downside I see in this is not as many finished products. Obviously, though, I personally enjoy the more open-ended learning experience, as this is an outside-of-school enrichment experience."

5. What's it like talking to a teacher or visiting the classroom?

One of the best ways to assess what your child's experience at a coding camp will be like is to pay a visit yourself and talk to the instructors there. And you can generally judge the quality of instruction yourself, even if you're no tech expert. "I can't stress enough that you should talk to the teacher—the one who's actually going teach your kid, not the manager or whoever's at the center that day—and find out what they plan to teach," says Hattan. "And if they have the time, have them teach you a short lesson like they would teach the kids. I'll happily show you how I work, as well as show you a bunch of the silly projects that my students have made in previous classes. If the teacher just reads you bullet points off a flyer or sends you to the website, that's not enough."

Others agree. "Parents should try to attend open houses or one-off events and meet the people involved," says Wright. And she says you should keep in mind that you're not the only one the instructors have to impress: "Find out about the specific person who will be the child’s instructor and see whether the child has a good feeling about that person."

6. Is there emphasis on counselors as educators, rather than just tech experts?

One thing in particular to assess is how good instructors are as teachersbeyond just their technical abilities. Max P., a data integration specialist who both attended coding camps as a teen and was a counselor at one in college, says camps ought to "look for counselors who are studying to become teachers or professors specifically, rather than just being interested in tech stuff more generally."

She adds, "I think when you pull from tech students, you definitely get expertise. But sometimes hires aren't going to have as much experience with—or interest in—the teaching and supervising aspect, which is important."

Wright feels this is crucial as well: "I have seen so many kids driven away from tech because companies hire instructors who may be great and knowledgeable about computers or a specific programming language but who are not good at all in encouraging a learner to find a language or project that’s comfortable for them to learn."

7. Do kids get to develop their own teaching and leadership skills?

As Max P.'s own trajectory shows, these camps can be opportunities not just to learn programming but how to share that knowledge with others. "Some camps conscript older or former attendees who aren't yet in college as counselors in training or junior counselors," she says. "I'm inclined to think that that's generally a good program to have, both for one's own kid (giving them more opportunities to develop social skills and such, if you choose to continue sending them until they reach that age or qualify for the program) and for the camp itself (campers of today can be the counselors of tomorrow, and training can help with that)." Find out if a camp offers these opportunities to do more than write code if you see your kid progressing along that sort of trajectory.

8. Are there things to do other than programming?

Many coding camps—particularly the ones that have campers staying overnight or for long days—offer activities that go beyond coding. You probably don't want your kid staring at a screen all day. Research what non-coding fun camps have to offer. "I thought the physical component was important so that kids aren't alone, staring at their screens all day, but get out, move around, and socialize," says Adams, though she acknowledges that, no doubt, like many kids drawn to these kinds of programs, "my son barely tolerated the physical activity part, as he wanted to get back to his programming!"

Max P. explains that "physical" covers a lot of ground. "There's often options like swimming, indoor games like Magic: The Gathering, maybe even Dungeons and Dragons as well—having 'fun and moving around' stuff, in the general sense, as well as learning," she says. So be on the lookout for camps where electives match your kids' interests.

9. Can you get help paying for it?

And let's finish up by getting real. These camps and classes aren't cheap; they can run up to $1,000 a week. But cost doesn't have to be a barrier to your kids getting the most out of them. Piedrafita, who lives in Europe, knows that going to various coding camps isn't cheap for his family. "Camps are usually focused on people in a certain region and are already quite expensive, and having to take a flight to get there makes it prohibitive," he says. "But there are scholarships that cover a percentage of the costs—and fortunately, lots of camps offer them." 

And forming a relationship with a particular camp can be a great way to stay in the know about assistance and price cuts. Dawson Fearnow's son has been taking—and loving—classes at CodaKid for several summers now. Fearnow says, "We signed up for the newsletter, and they offer discounts so long as you sign up early." So, if a camp looks promising but its cost threatens to overwhelm your budget, don't be afraid to ask about financial aid.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.