What I Learned From Running a Summer “Learn To Program” Workshop for 8 to 12 year olds

Misty Lackie
8 min readAug 4, 2015

My company just finished up four straight weeks of our Learn to code summer workshop and boy was it an experience. I’ve wanted to do something like this for awhile now and the opportunity & timing was finally right so we jumped in.

First, let me just say that I am truly lucky to have amazing team members who were not only willing to go along for the ride, but went above and beyond in every single way.

I want to share some of the main things our team learned from running these workshops in the hopes that it will help others who have been thinking about running something similar in their own town.

Don’t Expect Kids To Learn Programming Like Adults Do

We went into this knowing that we could not simply sit kids down and have them start pumping out code. I’ve tried this with my own son (who is extremely tech savvy) with little success.

However, seeing his obsession with Minecraft and how easily he runs commands, installs mods and even hacks into things, made me think there could be a better approach. Let’s get kids interested by leveraging something they absolutely love… and boy do they love Minecraft.

I started researching what it would take to create some sort of course material around Minecraft that would be fun and easy enough for kids. I came upon the LearnToMod software, and it seemed like the perfect solution.

The software has material broken out into small lessons allowing you to create mods using a drag and drop block type interface and earn badges as you complete lessons. It also allows you to switch into JavaScript view, giving you the best of both worlds.

There’s a built-in simulator that allows you to test your mods without having to load Minecraft. While the simulator is a bit limited, it gave us what we needed to run and test basic mods.

By the end of each workshop, the kids had a good understanding of what functions are, how to leverage loops, when to use conditional statements, how important basic math and planning is when programming and how to organize your code to make it more readable.

Did they walk away knowing how to hand code in JavaScript? No, but they now have some of the very important fundamentals down that will prepare them for the next level. I’m confident that many of these kids will move on to higher levels and within time will have the skills to hand code.

Just don’t expect that from the start or you may lose them before you have a chance to really get started.

It’s Better To Separate By Age Group

This is a decision we struggled with when first setting up these workshops. We weren’t sure how many parents would sign up so we ultimately decided to group all ages together.

We discovered that the skill level in typing alone for the 8 and 9 year olds is very different than the 10 to 12 year olds. The 10 to 12 year olds overall were more comfortable with computers.

Next time around we will organize it so the 8 and 9 year olds are in different sessions than the 10 to 12 year olds.

Make Your Space Amazingly Fun!

We are fortunate enough to have an awesome open office space to begin with, but we wanted to convert it in a way that would be relevant to the workshop and excite the kids.

We turned our office space into a Minecraft zone. This included hanging Minecraft posters, hanging multiple block heads around the office, creating a ton of small Minecraft blocks for around the office and even creating a hang out sitting area with block seats and green rugs.

It was a huge hit! Word starting getting around town and we had people constantly popping in asking to see the space. The kids absolutely loved it!

It Will Cost More Than You Think

We initially threw around the idea of holding these for free or at least very low-cost. That idea quickly vanished as we started researching laptop rentals, chair rentals and I started to run the employee cost numbers.

The lowest cost laptop rental we could find was $80 per month and that didn’t really have the ideal requirements for what we needed. We ended up purchasing small refurbished laptops for $145 a piece that did the job well.

We also purchased some affordable folding chairs that worked well for the kids. Add in the costs of computer mice, mouse pads, name badges, printed material, office decorations, employee costs, etc. and those costs started adding up quickly.

In addition, we needed to get the word out so we invested some money into advertising. I will detail what we did to book the workshops up in a future post because it really does warrant its own post.

We settled on a price of $149 per student for the workshop, which allowed us to cover our costs.

Always Have a Plan B, C & D

Expect that things will not always go as planned, especially when you’re working with lots of young kids. Servers will go down, software will crash and kids will get frustrated. You need to be able to respond to these situation quickly, otherwise things can get hairy fast.

Thankfully, we had enough foresight to prepare multiple off-computer group activities to break things up. These activities got the kids off the computers for a short time and were also a great backup for when things didn’t go quite as planned.

We also learned to limit things that can cause the kids to get too excited or out of control.

On the 3rd day of the first workshop we made the mistake of allowing them to open Minecraft to test their mods in Minecraft rather than the simulator. Not a good idea! Things got a little wild and kids no longer wanted to program, they just wanted to play Minecraft. Not all kids had the PC version of Minecraft either, which added to the conflict.

From there on out we decided to uninstall Minecraft from the computers and rely on the simulator that came with the software. While the simulator was limiting for testing certain things, it worked well enough and still allowed the kids to play around and explore, but in a more controlled environment.

It was 10x Harder & More Resource Extensive Than Anticipated

It took one of us (the main teacher) a full month to prepare. While the LearnToMod software had a lot of lessons and videos built in, it wasn’t structured in a way that we felt would have been productive for teaching 15 kids at the same time. A lot of time spent was preparing lessons and learning the software so we could teach the courses with confidence.

One of the biggest challenges was getting the kids to focus — and keep them focused. These kids were super pumped up that they were going to learn how to program their own mods but some also came in with unrealistic expectations.

Kids came in wanting to program some pretty extensive mods after their favorites such as the popular “Lucky Block Mod”. They had no idea on what was involved to make a mod like that. Once we started diving into programming our first basic mods, they quickly realized that it takes a lot of work and code to make even what appears to be the simplest things happen.

We had to make sure to keep things fun and encourage the kids not to give up. This required a lot of one-on-one with some of the kids. We had 3 adults and 2 student helpers on the floor helping at all times, which helped tremendously. If we didn’t have that kind of help, we would have lost a lot of kids to frustration and discouragement.

Also, trying to get 8 to 12 year old kids to understand when to use a loop and why is harder than you think. We even had some write the same code without a loop and then with a loop to show how much easier certain things are with loops. Even after that many still struggled with using loops.

You Gotta Be Willing To Be Flexible

You really have to be willing to make adjustments — sometimes on the fly. If you are the type of person that needs to stick with a set plan and have everything run rigidly on schedule, you will have a hard time running a program like this.

We ran four total workshops, and it was interesting to see how different some were from the others.

One of the workshops in particular was very advanced so we had to adjust some of our lessons to be a little more challenging for them. Another had a lot of younger students resulting in things moving a little slower, so we had to adjust our lessons for that class too.

When we started to see multiple kids get a little antsy, we had to jump into something else quickly in order to avoid things going in the wrong direction. This is when our off-computer activities came in handy, or showcasing a mod we developed in Minecraft. These things helped keep the energy high and the excitement going.

It Was Extremely Rewarding!

It was awesome to see how excited the kids got after they accomplished a task and received a badge!

Our teachers and helpers on the floor were keeping the vibe high and handing out tons of high-fives as kids were moving forward. Kids were even encouraging and helping each other. When one kid accomplished something cool, others would surround him/her to check it out and cheer in excitement. This vibe and positive energy really kept the kids excited and motivated to push their limits. It was awesome to see how truly excited they were to learn.

Our classes were far from quiet so we are grateful our neighbors were supportive of what we were doing. ALL of the parents were truly amazing! They were excited about this too and it was great to see how supportive they were of us and their kids.

Mostly though, it was extremely rewarding to see the kids walk away from this having a good grasp of what we taught and hungry to learn more.

After all we learned from running these first “Learn To Program” workshops, we’re excited to expand upon them in the future through our new service CodeDigs.com