Kitchener-Waterloo

Coding, not canoes. Summer camps in K-W teach kids computing essentials

Forget canoeing and capture the flag; children as young as six are learning how to build and program their own robots out of Lego at summer camps in Waterloo region

'Until now, our children hated going to camp,' parents have told David Goodfellow

Campers make robots out of Lego blocks, and learn to program them with with varying levels of difficulty. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

It's summer camp, re-imagined for the digital age. 

Armed with computer tablets and interlocking plastic blocks, an increasing number of kids are spending their summers learning how to build and program robots.

"Our region is [so] technology focused, many parents are working in the technology industry. They are hyper aware of the benefits of using technology to be a creator, not just a consumer," said David Goodfellow, the founder of Brickworks Academy which offers week-long robotics classes to children ages six to 13.

The first year the camp ran, Goodfellow said they had 50 participants. Six years later, that number has grown to nearly 5,000. Goodfellow said he's also witnessed a large increase in competitor camps offering robotics since Brickworks' founding.

Although robotics and other tech camps might be missing the elements usually associated with a traditional summer camp, Goodfellow says that for some kids, that model doesn't work.

"Quite a few parents come to us and say, we are so thankful we found your camp because up until now, our children hated going to camp," Goodfellow said.

"Once they found us, they found their kindred spirits … it reaffirmed that this is a valid interest to have."

Screen time at summer camp

Michael Turton, a Waterloo-based educational therapist, suggests parents interested in robotics camps ask about how much screen time their children will have, as well as what other activities the camps offer. 

"Children do need the opportunity to be children. If you had to choose one camp, personally I would be looking for an opportunity to allow them to do some outdoor education," Turton said.

At Brickworks, Goodfellow says the all the age groups spend at least one hour a day outside.

The junior class spends about 15 per cent of their day with screens, while the older classes' curriculum calls for more, self-directed screen time. It's delivered in short intervals, in between Lego building and robot testing activities. 

Summer camp social skills

While some parents see summer camp as a way to limit their children's screen time, others see an opportunity to introduce them to skills for an increasingly automated future — but Turton cautions against focusing too much on that. 

"Sometimes we spend too much time in childhood prepping for them for the future," said Turton.

"The one concern I have about it is that it's parents looking into the future and saying, 'Hey this is a skill that my kid will need to have because it's the key to a great job.' Whatever programming language they use right now, it's probably going to be obsolete in a couple of years."

The camps still have value though, said Turton. If the child is interested and engaged in the subject matter it can be a great opportunity to develop interpersonal communication, problem solving and critical thinking,

Turton said he is considering sending his own son to robotics camp next year, if his interest in robotics continues.

He suggests parents consider how fun robotics is for their children, and to avoid placing excessive importance on improving academic performance during the summer months.

About the Author

Alexandra Burza is a reporter with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, covering arts and culture, environmental issues, local government and more.

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