Campers at Bricks 4 Kidz are spending the summer building not only Lego masterpieces and motorized toys but also confidence, friendships and a mind for engineering.
The day camp, which runs through the end of July, is a place for young Lego lovers to spend the morning learning STEM concepts by building with the iconic bricks. Alex Soriano, who owns the local franchise of the international program, said Bricks 4 Kidz is all about laying the foundation early for kids who show an interest in engineering.
"It's learning through fun," Soriano said. "They think they're just having a Lego fun class but they're learning some important skills."
The camp, which is held at three different locations throughout the summer, is mostly full for the season, but Soriano said they might be adding another session to accommodate growing interest. Each session is Monday through Thursday and has a special theme. This week's session, held at Greenacres Community Center, was themed around the video game "Minecraft." Other themes include Star Wars, amusement park rides, movie-making and junior robotics/coding.
The days are structured around five stations: free play, where kids can build whatever they like with available Lego pieces; the "moving" station, where kids can build things that move using batteries and motors; a mosaic station, making 2D or 3D mosaic Lego creations from a set of directions; the model station, where kids Tuesday were building "Minecraft" pigs; and the Perler bead station.
"The first day is a little easier, and as we see that they are getting better, we push them (to try more challenging builds)," Soriano said. "We find really young kids building five years beyond their age and tell their parents, 'You have a future engineer.' You can tell immediately."
The moving station is where the engineering really comes in. Using Lego motors and batteries, kids are able to assemble things like a seesaw or a car. Parents won't find the motor or battery at Target, Soriano said, but they can be found online.
Soriano's goal for Bricks 4 Kidz is that it will spark an interest early on in imaginative children. Junior highs and high schools often have STEM classes or programs, but Soriano doesn't want those science-minded kids to have to wait until they're older to explore those subjects.
"I want them to grow a love for how things work," Soriano said. "I want them to love to ask why. That's our ultimate mission."
Soriano started the local Bricks 4 Kidz after doing a similar Lego engineering program on his own a few years ago. It started when he was looking for academic enrichment programs for his own children, a son now 13 and daughter, 10. He would drive them to Los Angeles for a coding class before he decided to use his background in education (as a principal before taking on Bricks 4 Kidz full time) and make the kind of program he'd like for his kids to have.
When that proved successful, he wanted to work with an already established business to expand his efforts. This is the third year for the summer camp, but Soriano has brought Bricks 4 Kidz to children for after-school programs for four years.
"It's grown tremendously in popularity," Soriano said. The classes "have just been jam-packed."
Over the years, the summer camps and after-school programs have seen several familiar faces, with kids returning for more Lego fun.
Marissa Wilkins has been sending her son, Landon, 7, to Bricks 4 Kidz since last summer. When he first started kindergarten, he was at risk of being held back due to some learning disabilities. He also was dealing with physical and emotional challenges, too, including severe separation anxiety. But with each day of Bricks 4 Kidz last year, Landon got more comfortable being on his own, jumping right in without giving his mom a hug or a wave goodbye by day three.
"For Landon, he has become a whole new child," Wilkins wrote in a text. "He's confident, has friends now and has improved dramatically academically; he is almost completely caught up grade level-wise and is excelling in math and science subjects because of Bricks 4 Kidz."
Leann Shaw said Bricks 4 Kidz has encouraged her son, Daniel, 8, to develop his natural STEM talents, to the point where he is able to help his older sisters with their homework. At camp, Daniel said he likes meeting new friends and is happy to help fellow campers.
"Daniel has an engineering brain and he's always looking for answers on his own," Shaw said. "Bricks 4 Kidz challenges him to engineer the answers to real-life questions and problems by using the knowledge he has in science and math."
Soriano said he has heard great feedback from parents and is touched that many continue to enroll their kids in his programs.
"Parents really love that their kids love it," Soriano said. "Parents love that their kids are learning how to make machines, even if they don't realize they're making machines."
Kern County needs more engineers, Soriano said, so introducing its concepts to kids opens up possibilities for themselves and their community. Future educators are also learning STEM concepts and how to teach them, as Soriano primarily hires people who are going into education to help him lead the camps.
But whether campers are future engineers or not, Soriano thinks each one will benefit from Bricks 4 Kidz.
"It builds a perseverance, because it's not easy," he said, "but having patience and perseverance to see it through, to troubleshoot when it doesn't work, that's the key not just for engineering but for a student and adult."