Building family bonds with Code Club in prison

Sometimes working for Code Club can take you to unexpected places. For Liz Smart, Regional Coordinator for the North West, an encounter with a Business Connector in Lancashire led to her setting up a Code Club with HMP Kirkham.

Here Liz tells us about how Code Club is working to establish family ties between dads and their visiting children.

Last August I met the wonderful Maria Desmond MBE, who runs a number of community projects across Lancashire and works closely with HMP Kirkham. As we talked about family Code Club sessions, she asked me a question I wasn’t expecting: “Have you ever thought about running a Code Club in a prison?”

Setting up the Code Club

Things took off quickly from there. The amazing women at Partners of Prisoners (POPS) leapt at the challenge and quickly, Karen, Kayleigh, and Janet were on board as the first volunteers. Awesome Code Club and CoderDojo volunteer Lisa Brown pitched in with some refurbished laptops donated by her employers Bosch UK, and the prison security team helped to make sure the equipment complied with internal policies.

POPS provides support to help maintain family ties during an offender’s stay at HMP Kirkham. Our idea was to create a Code Club that young people could attend with their dads and where they could work together to code games and animations.

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One of the Scratch games the children could code with their dads

The first session

Just a few months after my initial conversation with Maria, we launched HMP Kirkham Code Club to coincide with the October half-term visiting days. The launch was a great success! POPs had crafted a fantastic display for the club space, and the dads and kids spent time working together on the Code Club projects. After the event, Maria said: “I can honestly say that in my 15 years’ involvement in prisons, I have never been quite so emotional. The men and their families were so hugely positive and proud of their kids — it was priceless.”

I can honestly say that in my 15 years’ involvement in prisons, I have never been quite so emotional. The men and their families were so hugely positive and proud of their kids – it was priceless.

Impact on the families

During the three visiting sessions that week, over 40 families attended the Code Club, and I was lucky enough to see the family engagement first-hand. The children started with Scratch projects — many had used Scratch in school and were excited to show their dads how they could manipulate the characters and get them to interact. They coded simple animations tailored to their interests and these acted as great conversation starters. One lad created a basketball animation, and his dad was amazed as his son proceeded to tell him all about his love of basketball.

One young prisoner couldn’t wait to tell his friends back in the block so that they could let their kids know they would have the chance to make computer games if they came to visit. He told me that some families have to travel a fair way on visiting days, so his friends’ children had stopped coming as often. He was convinced that having a Code Club would be the necessary incentive, and that they’d all enjoy it as much as he had.

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The coding projects helped the prisoners and their children talk about shared interests

One thing I didn’t expect was that, when a grandad thanked us for the session, he was clearly surprised that his young grandson’s mouse skills were better than his own! He also told us that he was able to use a trackpad for the first time, which he said would definitely help his employability skills.

The Code Club continues to run three times a week to coincide with the visiting days at HMP Kirkham. It is also inspiring others to follow suit and in the Midlands, where a prisoner with an interest in technology has volunteered to run his own Code Club during visiting times.

Start a Code Club in your community

Starting a Code Club where you live can have a huge impact on your community, and you don’t need any coding expertise to do it. Take the first step towards running a club at your local school, library, or other community venue today!

To learn more and find help with getting started, head over to www.codeclub.org.uk/start-a-club.