“A lot of kids are in front of computers for different reasons,” he said. “I like to tell the computer what to do.”
Hayden is one of the children enrolled in a new franchise of Code Ninjas in South Ogden, where kids learn how to code while building and playing their own video games. The company has hundreds of locations, nine of which are in Utah. The Weber County franchise opened just this year, and over 100 children have already signed up for the program.
According to owners Jared Snell and Rick Sollis, kids like it because they get to spend time playing video games. Parents like it because their children are learning advanced coding skills without nagging on their part.
“Where the curriculum is all game-based, it’s so much fun for the kids,” Sollis said. “They don’t even realize they’re learning.”
Both owners have a background working with computers. Snell worked as a software developer in higher education for 25 years before he decided to take his career in another direction.
“I just kind of got tired of working for the man,” he recounted. “My wife said, ‘Hey, why don’t you look at franchising?’ and I’m like, I don’t want to flip burgers. But I started looking around and I found Code Ninjas and I just thought it was really cool what they do.”
He recruited Sollis as his partner in opening a Northern Utah location. A gamer himself, Sollis was drawn to the video game development aspect of the franchise. He also saw Code Ninjas as the type of program he wishes was around when his son expressed interest in coding as a 12-year-old.
The program is structured like a karate dojo, Sollis said, where participants between the ages of 7 and 14 “belt-up,” while children as young as 5 are placed in a foundational learning track. Older children start at a white belt and end at a black belt as the curriculum progressively gets more and more difficult, pacing themselves along the way.
“It’s not like we’re standing in front of everybody saying, OK, everybody do this, and Johnny, you’ve got to keep up,” Snell said. “Some kids fly through things really fast and some kids struggle a little bit, and we help them.”
Beyond assistance from Snell and Sollis, Code Ninjas also employs “senseis” — typically students in computer science and computer engineering at Weber State University or high school students with an interest in coding — to help participants work through problems they encounter.
Generally, Sollis said, it takes kids three to five years to reach a black belt. To earn that rank, participants must develop an app, which Code Ninjas then helps them get published.
“That would be pretty cool to tell my grandpa he can get my game on the (Google) Play Store,” Hayden said, talking about his goal of eventually earning a black belt.
He said he wants to make a game in which players can build and ride on roller coasters. Fifth grader Jordan Francis, another participant in Code Ninjas, said he wants to build an app to help Roblox players earn digital Robux currency to use in that game.
Much of what children learn through Code Ninjas are college-level skills, Sollis said. And if students finish the entire program, Snell said “they’d be far beyond what I did in college.”
Snell sees the movement to teach kids coding at a young age as comparable to the push for increased literacy throughout the U.S. in the early 1900s. While nearly everyone consumes technology, few know how to build and improve it.
“Society has come a long way and I think we’re at a same bottleneck now where a lot of people are reading technology but not writing technology, and I think working with the children is going to change that for us,” he said.
Snell and Sollis plan to continue that mission as their franchise enters its first year of holding summer camps — weeklong programs led by an instructor that teach specific skills, like becoming a YouTuber, creating Minecraft modifications, learning the fundamentals of robotics, and creating and printing 3D designs.
Throughout the summer, the South Ogden Code Ninjas will continue to hold its regular programming, during which participants can come to the physical location and code for a couple of hours a week. Hours are flexible, as parents can bring their children in anytime between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday. If a participant misses a week, those hours can be banked for sometime in the future.
“That’s one thing that parents love is it’s flexible, so it works with their schedule,” Sollis said.
While kids are learning coding on their own time, both owners noted that the benefits of Code Ninjas extend beyond the program. Students have realized the value of paying attention at school, especially during math class, is more than the marks on their report card.
One of the most meaningful things they’ve seen children — no matter their age or gender — take away from Code Ninjas, though, is improved self-esteem and new friends.
“(Sollis) coached soccer for years, I’ve coached football for decades and it’s a different element here,” Snell said. “Kids, you know, they find themselves, they find other friends.”