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Advice on Setting up Young Coding Clubs

By February 2, 2015


By: Conor Lawlor, Senior Sales Engineer, Salesforce, Dublin

Here at Salesforce Dublin we are in our 2nd year of running our CoderDojo program. CoderDojo is a volunteer led global movement of free coding clubs for young people. The typical age range catered for is 7 – 17 years old.

When we first started the program we were only catering for the children and relatives of Salesforce employees, so the majority of attendees were in the younger age bracket, due to the youthful age profile of the workforce here in Dublin :).

This year, we are also running a Dojo for young people (13 years +) from Citywise Tallaght (Dublin, Ireland). Citywise is a not-for-profit organisation, which was set up to run education, sporting and personal development programs. It provides children living in disadvantaged areas with after-school and out-of-school educational support.

The topics covered vary from Dojo to Dojo depending on the technical skills of the volunteer mentors. In our Dojo we have 2 streams, Scratch and HTLM (html, javascript, css).

Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create interactive art, stories, simulations, and games and this is usually taught to the younger kids. Although it is designed to be used by kids from 8-16 it can be used by people of all ages. Scratch helps teach the fundamentals of programming in a fun and intuitive way. According to the Scratch website, it “helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century”.

The young people in the HTML class learn how to hand craft web pages/web apps using HTML, add rich functionality using JavaScript and style their pages with CSS. This gives them a much better understanding of what goes on under the hood on their favorite websites.

So, what have we learned over the last 18 months when it comes to running coding clubs for young people?

1. Manage Expectations:

Learning to walk before you can run is a challenge for all of us. If you set up a new Dojo, fill it with 30 kids and then ask them what they want to learn, I’d be amazed if the answer from 95% of the respondents isn’t “write games”.

So before you bring your child to a coding club just explain to them that they are there to have fun and learn, but also that it might be a couple of weeks before they will be able to create the next “World of Warcraft”.

Scratch is great for the younger kids as it is almost game like, while still enabling the child to learn fundamental programming principles, such as looping constructs, scope and variables. It also provides instant gratification as they can have fun testing their work as they go along.

For the older kids that want more of a challenge, they will learn that creating cool webpages takes time and effort. Though not essential, it will help if they are familiar with using a keyboard as kids that don’t know where certain characters are on a keyboard can find it frustrating and lose interest.

2. Ability Levels

Another challenge when you have a variety of young people in a group is how you cater for their range of abilities. While we have our Dojo split into two separate classes, even within these classes there is a disparate range of abilities primarily due to age and experience. Previously we tried to start off each session with some mentor led training with the majority of the class participating. Attendees that were already familiar with what was being covered could work on their own projects. It is therefore recommended to have more than one mentor with technical abilities at each class, as there will be questions on different topics coming from different groups.

The ethos of CoderDojo is also that you collaborate and learn from your peers, so it’s great when you see the students showing off the work they’ve done at home and explaining to the rest of the group how they did it. We set aside some time at the end of each session for the kids to come up on show their work on the big screen. This term we are focusing on project work so the students can put what they’ve learned into practice and learn the importance of teamwork.

3. Room Setup:

In my experience, how the room is setup can also make a huge difference. A classroom type setup tends to work much better than a boardroom type setup. In a boardroom type setup where the children are all looking at each other they are more likely to get distracted,lose interest and start messing.

4. Use Online Resources:

If you are setting up a Dojo, there are lots of really useful resources available online. A lot of Dojo’s share their lesson plans, so these can be used as a quick start to get your Dojo up and running, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to just what other Dojo’s are doing. has some really excellent resources and tutorial such as the Hour of Code, which also works really well as a class exercise.

Frequently, when setting up a Dojo, you will get enquiries from parents that would like to enroll their child but are unsure if they are ready yet. I recommend that you direct them to the Hour of Code as this can be done at home using any browser, it can even be done on a tablet. This can be great fun for both parents and kids and gives a great introduction to the type of material covered by the Scratch class which brings me back to my first point, managing expectations!

Conor Lawlor, Salesforce

About Conor Lawlor

Conor is a Senior Sales Engineer on the Platform Specialist Team in EMEA. He’s worked in Salesforce for just over 2 years. Conor has almost 20 years experience in the IT Industry. Prior to joining Salesforce he worked as a software developer and architect for an Irish telecommunications software company for 17 years.