The world’s largest kids coding franchise, Code Ninjas, is gearing up to open its first location in Pensacola this March on 3 W. Nine Mile Road. The goal to teach the next generation to not just consume technology, but to create it.
The facility is intended to be an after-school haven for the technologically creative and the curious, and a place of belonging for kids that are more inclined to pick up a video game controller than a softball mitt. This interest in the online realm is celebrated and transformed into a skill set, where kids learn to build video games and eventually, design their own.
Pensacola franchise owner Jo Dawn Brown and her husband, Stephen, made the decision to plant the franchise in the Panhandle after watching their now 15-year-old son successfully work his way up through the program.
In weekly sessions, the children strive to build up to the expert “black belt” status by collecting skills in coding, robotics and critical thinking. Progress is measured by earning nine different colored belts indicating levels of mastery, comparable to what would be earned in traditional martial arts training.
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She said the difference between Code Ninjas and a school setting is that the children are typically having so much fun, they are oblivious to the depth of knowledge they are gaining. After seeing her own son’s growth while living in Texas, she thought Pensacola’s children needed a similar opportunity.
“My son kind of just came out of the womb doing tech stuff. He was always a tinkerer. He was always taking things apart, trying to put things back together and really kind of was trying to self-teach himself some computer coding,” Brown said. “When Code Ninjas came into our subdivision in Texas, and I saw computer coding, tech stuff, robotics — like, that is my kid right there … he was just in this community of people that thought like him.”
Brown was amazed to see that with the coaching of the “senseis,” students leave the program with finished products relevant to the real world. With each strike of the gong indicating they have unlocked a new benchmark in the program, their inner self-confidence grows and creativity flourishes.
“By the time they graduate with a black belt, they will have created, designed and produced their own app, or their own game, that they could sell on the App Store if they want. In fact, we have black belt ninjas from other franchises that have their video games on the App Store,” she said. “They’re like 14 and 16-year-old kids. It’s absolutely amazing the things that they can do.”
As technology continues to become an increasingly integral part of day-to-day life, Brown said it is important for kids to understand how diversely technology can be used in different career paths.
Exposing children to “high tech” jobs in industries they might not immediately think of, such as the medical field or environmental science, is crucial for the next generations workforce.
“We’re not trying to create an army of Google employees,” she said. “I have a friend that works for a power washing company, and they’re using drones to do all their skyscrapers now. Things that you just don’t think about. Technology just touches so much of our life that we were so used to it, we don’t think about it.”
Although children are flooded with clubs and electives to pursue their interests at the high school level, there are not nearly as many opportunities for children to be exposed to coding at the elementary and middle school levels. Even though the younger the children are, the easier it is to familiarize themselves with it.
“I like to explain to people that coding is a second language, very similar to Spanish, French, German, all of those different types of things. We’ve all been told we’re going to teach the kids young, because their brains can absorb it,” she said. “Just as language opens up doors and opportunities to people that are bilingual or trilingual — people that can code and have that comfort level with technology, they have access to things that people that (can’t), don’t.”
The experiences they have at Code Ninjas could ultimately start paving the way toward a future career and reshape Pensacola’s job market.
“Pensacola is really growing as this tech place, like University of West Florida, you’ve got (the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition) downtown, you’ve got so many of these great programs for the older kids. And so, we’re really excited to bring something to really give the younger kids that foundation to be so much more ready for those bigger opportunities,” she said.
The facility will mainly function on a tiered membership basis, where parents pay for a class package and set a schedule for their child to come after school, on a weekend, or a holiday. But the facility also offers an opportunity to be an asset to the local school districts, offering resources such as field trips, after school clubs and teacher trainings.
“We saw the impact that it made it in our community in Texas, and really collaborating with the schools and the things that they weren’t able to do, we were able to provide kind of that missing link,” she said.
She also plans to partner with community nonprofits to provide memberships and summer camps to children who are interested but have financial barriers.
Pre-sale prices and summer camp registration will begin in February and updates can be found on the Code Ninjas Pensacola Facebook page.