Tennis camp or football club? Junior rock band or tweenies drama workshop? As the school holidays loom ahead once more, I think how on earth am I going to entertain the masses (my three kids) while I work this summer? While there seems plenty of choice for the younger two, for my 13-year old son, Angus, the options are a little more limited.
Like many lads his age, his interests barely stretch further than eating, sleeping and playing on his computer. So at Easter break, I decided to embrace his obsession with electronics and send him to Fire Tech Camp, which hosts a series of tech-focused holiday courses for screen fiends.
Fire Tech Camps are held all across the UK and aimed at children aged 9-17 with an interest in technology. Run by a crack team of specialist tutors, the courses, which run from 1 to 5 days, teach kids skills such as Java coding, building video games, robotics, animation, wearable tech and 3D printing.
While tech camps are still a relatively new concept here in the UK, they are big business in the States, with some seeing more than 30,000 kids passing through each year.
Spotting a gap in the UK market, founder Jill Hodges, an American tech enthusiast based in the UK, set up Fire Tech Camp to appease her own kids, now aged 10 and 12. "I grew up writing fun programs, hanging out on bulletin boards, and hacking games in the 80s" says Hodges. "Today, kids love to consume video games, apps and websites, but they don't know how to create them."
And it's true. My son is obsessed with computer games, X-Box, YouTube videos, you name it, if it appears on a screen, he's all over it. I've even been known to Skype him to announce his dinner's ready. So rather than fight the fight, I've decided to encourage his screen obsession, as you never know, it could be the start of a great career.
There are various courses to choose from. World building with Minecraft is popular with the younger, 9+ age group, as is Minecraft Redstone (I know, me neither), but Angus opted for the two-day coding with Java course, where kids can learn how to build games in Java, held at the MakerLAB in Brighton.
Along with half a dozen other similar-aged teens, Angus sat around a big communal desk in an airy studio armed with his beloved laptop. Kids are encouraged to bring along their own computers, as some of the tools and programmes used are downloaded directly on to them, although they are able to rent them too.
Russ Harkin, who also teaches IT at a local secondary school, was the course specialist. "Java is in so many devices nowadays, it's the main coding language. At Fire Tech Camp we're giving them the basic tools which they can then adapt for any program" explains Russ. "Over the two-day course, we teach them the basics of structure and design. They learn how to understand and build simple platform games. It's all about encouraging an interest in coding, we want to light that fire because it opens up so many other possibilities."
For most teenagers, the lessons provided at school are too short to even scratch the surface of coding. "Computing is one of my favourite subjects at school, but we only get two hours a fortnight, so it was brilliant to have a whole two days playing and building games" says Angus. "I was a bit worried it was going to be like school, but it didn't feel like it at all, Russ was really cool."
The kids are each given a memory stick to download Greenfoot, an easy-to-use Java coding tool to work on. "We would play a few games first using Greenfoot, and then look at the code to see how it all worked" says Angus. "We then worked on a new project where we all made a platform game each, which was loads of fun."
After each session, the kids came out buzzing (and not just from static electricity...) all chatting in a language I didn't understand. Angus, keen to show off his new-found skills, disappeared back in his smouldering pit of a teenage bedroom, only to surface with a grin a mile wide. "Mum, come and play this, I've built this cool new new game" and I think, who cares if he's got vitamin D deficiency from a lack of sunlight, he could be the new Bill Gates.
Fire Tech Camps runs tech courses for kids aged 9-17 in Brighton, London, Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester, as well as 5-day summer residential courses at Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire. firetechcamp.com/0207 193 4002
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