A day at Apple summer camp: Racing bots and coding for fun

Like Google and Microsoft, Apple is investing in programs to teach your kids how to code and play with technology.

Apple's summer camps are aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds.

Photo by Katie Collins/CNET

Never before have I heard such a commotion in an Apple Store. And I've covered iPhone launches.

The hoots and yelps of a dozen children echo around the historic brick and glass building in London's Covent Garden Piazza.

This is day two of Apple Camp, and an important race is under way. Everyone is bunched around in the "theater," tucked away at the back of the second floor, so one kid is climbing a stone column for a better view. Others are crouched on the floor clutching iPads like their lives depend on it. Everyone, regardless of age, is enthralled.

It's not safe to take even a single step across the floor, which is buzzing with Spheros -- spherical toy robots that scuttle this way and that. There's no way of telling which way they might hurtle next, unless you are the kid controlling the little bot.

In fact, it's remarkable how quickly the children pick up the skills needed to control Sphero. The day's session started with a demo around a computer screen, with an Apple employee showing his young audience how to use the iPad app to control and program Sphero. They didn't need telling twice.

The kids get to play with Sphero bots, learning how to code them to move and change color.

Photo by Katie Collins/CNET

Apple has been running its summer camps in its stores for several years now, but this is the first time it's introduced specific coding and robotics sessions. Through iPads, the cute rolling robot Sphero and the programming language Tynker, this three-day camp teaches core coding skills to children aged 8 to 12. It's one of several initiatives, including ones from Microsoft and Google, designed to inspire and teach the next generation of tech talent.

But this isn't a recruitment workshop as much as it is a brand-building exercise. Like its rivals, Apple has invested in making products for education. After all, it doesn't hurt a company to introduce its wares to a young, impressionable crowd. With their lime-green, Apple-branded T-shirts, this lot already looks like a group of mini Apple workers, and their aptitude for the program suggests they could be ideal pickings for the Cupertino, California-based company in a decade's time.

Brother and sister team Luca, 11, and Francesca, 9, speed through the activities and then set themselves to the challenge of using Sphero to create a star. Some proper math is needed, but they don't shy away from it. In fact, they know exactly where to start. Luca switches over to Safari and taps "angles of a star" into the search bar before the calculations begin in earnest.

As I watch the children swinging between hyperactivity and intense concentration, it's easy to see that their experience is as enjoyable as is it educational.

"Why are we here again?" asks the camp leader to the group as one set of activities wraps up on this July day. "To play!" some shout. "To learn!" chorus the rest. Both are right, of course. It is summer camp, not summer school, after all.

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The coding programs use a building block technique that requires the children to be both creative and logical.

Photo by Katie Collins/CNET

Neither Luca nor Francesca has done anything like this before, but they are having "so much fun," they assure me. They have an iPad at home, and Francesca has asked for a Sphero for her upcoming birthday. Their mother heard about the summer camp thanks to an email from Apple and thought it sounded ideal. It also allowed her to attend an iMovie workshop for parents that was run in tandem with the camp.

The four camp leaders have plenty of experience running Apple's in-store youth program, and it shows. Their praise is not just generous, but specific. "This code is very efficient," one girl is told as a supervisor casts his eye over their work. But her mind is already elsewhere. She muses, "Imagine if you could use this to make Minecraft work."

It would be blasphemous for me to tell her here, in the minimalist temple to technology that is the Apple Store, that Microsoft has a program that allows her to do exactly that. But I'm fully confident she'll work it out on her own. These kids have shown that they're nothing if not resourceful.

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