July 27, 2017

It’s the Relationships, Stupid: Connected Camps Mid-Summer Report

Categories: Digital Learning, Educational Practice
Kid sitting at desk looking at computer screen with coding on the screen

Two years ago, Connected Camps and Institute of Play launched Minecraft Summer of Learning, piloting a new model for in-game virtual summer camps. We’ve served over two thousand families since then, and are mid-way through summer 3.0. This year’s camps reflect a ton of learning and iteration, but what has stayed constant is our focus on relationships.

Through our summer camps, kids are developing close relationships around shared interests, and are able to stay connected with our community year-round.

Deep and Close Friendships

As I wrote back when we were about to launch, the engine for our camps is powered by high school and college counselors, all tech enthusiasts immersed in Minecraft.

I am confident that our high school and college counselors will be the warm beating heart of our servers, and that the younger ones will find in them the best kind of mentors — kids who have more experience and expertise, but with whom they can still identify and mess around. And, I expect that the learning our teen counselors experience is likely to be as profound for them as for the campers they mentor.

Even with this expectation at the outset, we were blown away by the strength of the relationships that kids forged with each other and their counselors. At our 2015 wrap-up event, counselor Lilyan Torres described how campers developed “deep and close friendships with one another” through their in-game interactions. On the last day of camp, campers gave each other and their counselors personal gifts like hand-picked flowers, and personalized gear.

Connected Camps Minecraft Counselors group photo

Counselors IRL

Our camps now run for shorter one-week spans, but we still see the same kind of attachments that we saw in our first year, when we ran longer camps. The tearful farewells, and the close relationships kids form in online camp are not so different than in-person camps. One parent wrote to us:

Although my daughter was very quiet on Teamspeak, she was so mentally and emotionally engaged that she sobbed for 20 minutes when camp ended.

These connections can be particularly profound for kids who struggle with more conventional camp formats. One parent shares:

He has ADHD and anxiety and is mildly autistic, so a “standard” camp environment is just not possible for him. This has been a FANTASTIC way for him to engage with others while doing what he loves.

After seeing how attached kids got to each other and the counselors in our first summer, we ramped up our training for counselors to support the social and emotional side of things. And we added voice chat via Teamspeak in year 2, and video chat this year, to help counselors better connect with and guide the young campers.

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Staying Connected

The relationships can be as close as in-person camps, but virtual camps have unique dimensions. Many kids are new to virtual playgrounds, particularly when they are connecting via voice or video chat. The first few days of camp are spent getting kids comfortable with the communication tools, and with being good digital citizens. For example, some kids don’t realize that “fixing” somebody’s in-game creation might be viewed by others as “griefing.” Our counselors are there to walk them through our code of conduct, looping parents in if conflicts escalate. Maintaining a kid-friendly Minecraft server takes hands-on guidance.

Connected Camps co-founder Tara Brown’s son is now old enough to be a Connected Camper, and she describes his first experience connecting via video chat in one of the Scratch summer camps.

He was a bit shy at first because it’s his first video chat with people other than friends and his family, but he quickly got the hang of it and is learning and having fun at the same time! Dad and I sit next to him in case he needs our help but I imagine by the 5th class he won’t need us at all.

Once kids get over the hurdle of communicating online, virtual camps and communities are a more accessible alternative to physical camps and afterschool programs for some families. The burden of transportation is often a big barrier for kids access to specialized tech programs.

The other big difference between our camps and traditional camps is that kids can stay connected with the community even after camp ends. Our Kid Club server is open year round, and we run afterschool programs and 1:1 mentoring. So yes, there are tearful farewells after the formal week-long program ends, but kids don’t have to say good-bye and can keep learning from one another and their counselors. As Paul Devarsi writes in Mindshift, a key feature of our model is that kids can “stay connected to STEM skills and mentors year-round.”

Screenshot of Minecraft characters

Counselors In-Game

Relationships Before Tech

Tools and platforms are constantly evolving, but designing around the relationships we want to foster is a north star for us. For example, this summer we are running new camps in coding and animation using Scratch. But the core model of social, collaborative learning supported by counselors who are fellow enthusiasts has stayed the same. It was a very simple transition for many of our counselors who were teaching coding in Minecraft to start supporting our Scratch programs.

At a time when digital and online learning platforms are being rolled out at a massive scale, it is more important than ever to keep kids and relationships at the center. Leveraging technology and online networks doesn’t mean robo-learning that replaces teachers and mentors. Today’s technology offers powerful new ways to strengthen and expand learning relationships, if we keep mentorship and community at the core of our efforts.

Sign up for one of our summer camps while you still can! We have lots more on offer this year, including mastering Minecraft Survival, Adventure, Architecture, Engineering, and Game Design Camp, Coding in Scratch and Minecraft, and Girls Only Camps. Or sign up for our free Kid Club server, open year round.

Banner Image: Photo Credit: Tara Tiger Brown