Connected Camps prevent ‘summer slide’ via Minecraft, esports

A breadth of productive activities awaits students and high school volunteers looking to keep playing and learning during the break.
By: | June 5, 2020
Getty Images photo

The pivotal period known affectionately in scholastic circles as the “summer slide” has begun in earnest. Students who have experienced a long school year, punctuated by disruption in work due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are looking for breaks from learning over the next couple of months.

Being largely sheltered in their homes, however, presents unique challenges. They are more likely to be on their computers, tablets or devices as a way to relax than playing outside or attending camps in person.

Although communicating socially and gaming have their pluses, there are few opportunities for students to truly be productive. Connected Camps, a program offered out of the University of California, Irvine, is serving to change that.

The group led by self-proclaimed “geek girls and learning scientists” Katie Salen and Mimi Ito has constructed an interactive and immersive environment to keep students’ minds sharp during the summer while offering an uncompromised level of practice and play.

Their Summer Camps, which run through Aug. 14, feature interest-driven activities for children ages 8-13 in a range of disciplines from coding and design to media production, where they can compete, create epic builds, and improve their play. The coolest part is that they are live, with expert instructors guiding students in favorites such as Minecraft and Roblox … and of course, several esports.

Those esports camps – in the four big titles Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Fortnite and assisted by the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) – keep kids on their toes by improving teamwork, communication and play through coaches who know the games. The focus on strategy is key and part of an overall, light-learning experience … away from the rigors of a strict online school environment.

“We want to return to the celebration of online gaming, where pursuing an interest in a space or a platform that you love with others can bring that meaning back to being online,” Salen says. “Students need to be connected socially to their peers. That is their lifeline. Kids have been cut off, in many cases from doing meaningful work with them. The loss has been very traumatizing.

“We provide a space for kids to do hands-on learning around an interest in a social context. We really believe that making a friend really matters. If they take a camp, they’re logging in for 90 minutes or once a week. There’s a kind of structure where they’re working with a young adult that really understands how to do online learning. Not everybody knows how to do it in a way that’s joyful and helps kids work in a directed way.”

Leaders that understand gaming

Mimi Ito

Katie Salen

The model for the program was started years ago by two founders, Ito and Salen, who have deep roots in connected learning and gaming.

Ito is a cultural anthropologist and professor at UC-Irvine, who has dedicated her career to examining children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She is a world-renowned researcher and speaker in new media, educational software, mobile gaming and Internet use. Her work on connected learning will be showcased at the Academic Esports Conference and Expo in October.

Salen is a professor of informatics at UC-Irvine who was the founder the Institute of Play, led the design and implementation of Quest to Learn, a game-based public school in New York City, and has been a frequently cited source on gaming, game design and culture.

They started Connected Camps in 2015 after testing out a number of different variations, including a server that ran 24 hours a day. Three years in, they formed the current structure and partnered with Outschool to help deliver those offerings. Now, they provide year-round learning for students (not just summer camps) that includes several free servers dedicated to young kids and teens, as well as a slew of programs and even a parenting blog … all in a safe environment.

“We found that a lot of parents, especially with children around the 8-9 year-old age, are quite hesitant to have their kids go into a multiplayer online space, and for a lot of good reasons,” Salen says. “Because the experiences cannot be great if the kids haven’t had any experience, for what it means to be in those spaces, how to connect. … We feel like we can offer a little bit of training wheels. For parents, part of our messaging is that we are a trusted server. And we’re also supporting young people and developing skills that will allow them to move into a more robust online gaming future.”

One of the hallmarks of the program – and the summer camps – is not only that structure and leadership but also its huge team of vetted counselors and teen volunteers who know the games well and can create and deliver the content in meaningful and fun ways to students.

“We really care about equity, and we care about putting young people at the center,” Salen says. “So our model has youth experts at the center. All of the ideas come from our counselors. They are responsible for designing the curriculum. We believe young people running the programs, the ideas have to come from them.”

A number of high school volunteers from around the country also help teach the games to those involved in camps while gaining personal development skills such as public speaking, conflict resolution and leadership.

“The volunteers are just a little bit older than the younger kids in Minecraft, so they get a chance to co-build with them,” Salen says. “They are slightly better experts, but they are on their same level in terms of interest. They’re getting near-peer mentor benefits of having conversations in and around what kids are interested in as they’re working on projects.”

The makeup of the camps

The summer program offers both co-ed and Just Girls camps to those who are interested. There is a cost, typically $100 for the full week that include 90-minute sessions per day. But the charge is substantially lower than the costs of comparable camps.

What students and the high school volunteers get out of it is far more than game play.

Those who sign up for Minecraft camps, for example, build toward goals and learn about subjects such as theater and animation, astronomy, business, Roman history, archaeology, paleontology, and game design. The Just Girls camps are Minecraft-based, and are focused on coding and engineering. Not your typical summer camps … but ones that students will love.

“Kids don’t want to come do school inside of Minecraft; they don’t want to come in and have a lesson in this or that,” Salen says. “So I’ll put curriculum in quotes, because it’s not a curriculum that a typical educator would make. The sessions are structured and they have a set of goals, but they’re producing work around an idea or theme that they’re working on. They’re planning with other kids. It always results from some kind of output, which is important.”

Some of the features of the camps are:

  • They are online in real time, and allow kids to interact with each other and instructors safely.
  • Children can connect on either laptops or desktops, wherever an internet connection is available.
  • Small group work, which allows kids to share and learn from each other, leading to new friendships.
  • Highly personalized instruction, which they say “ignites a passion for learning, collaboration, and creativity.”

“They’re not just like building incidentally,” Salen says. “They’re working on something. They get peer feedback. So they learn how to give and receive feedback in constructive ways.”

The camps vary in length and price. There are also a number of free servers where students, including teens 14-17 can get involved. Schools can also work with Connected Camps to get students immersed in programs as well as provide a way to get volunteers on board.

“We find is that every district has a unique set of needs, so it just requires several conversations,” Salen says. “We just had a school reach out to us and say, we have 400 kids, we want to get into programming, what can you do for us? If their kids want to be high school volunteers, we professionally develop them. There is a cohort of volunteers that give a lot of support and instruction. They shadow the more experienced counselors, so it really is a robust programs for kids that really have an interest in Minecraft. They have a chance to share their passion with younger kids.”


Chris Burt is the Esports Editor for District Administration and the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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