Despite increasing enrollments at technology camps—in some cases reaching into the thousands—there are those who will question the place of technology within camp programming. As founder of Brick Works, a tech camp based in Waterloo, Ontario, that’s a concern David Goodfellow hears more than most, perhaps particularly given the recent addition of Fortnite and Minecraft sessions. The games are used to teach game design. Still there's the inevitable snort: “Kids are going to summer camp to play video games?!’”
To some extent, it’s a valid question. We tend to think of the tangibles—activities, events, facilities—as the cornerstone of the camp experience. Further, we tend to think of a specific range of activity as representative of what camps are: canoeing, arts and crafts, swimming, archery. Camps that fall outside of those parameters can, to some, look not much like camp at all. Brick Works is one of them. The programs there began with Lego and Lego robotics and have grown considerably from there, including coding programs for kids, and digital game design. Not a s’more in sight.
Camps like Brick Works momentarily confound our sense of what camps are, though they can also clarify and affirm what it is that camps do best, and what they do better than other learning environments. In all camps, traditional or innovative, activities/events/facilities don’t exist for themselves, or even necessarily to promote the skill sets they seems to represent. No one, for example, is looking forward to a career in making friendship bracelets. Even the sports, at least outside of specialty camps, aren’t conducted with the elite athlete in mind. Instead, as camp directors will tell you, the programming is a tool used to get to the hearts and minds of the kids, to help them to grow together, develop, and gain confidence in who they are and what they can do. From public speaking programs to sailing the high seas on a tall ship, it’s not the activity so much as what is done with it, and what it is employed to accomplish.
That’s true at Brick Works as well. When someone questions video games as a program area, Goodfellow notes, “it’s just that they don’t understand how they’re being used.” Skill development is a goal, certainly, though confidence and social learning are as well, something that is intentional and embedded within the program design. The Brick Works programs were created to give young people—those with a distinct set of interests and aptitudes—a place where they can share their passions and knowledge, where they will feel a unique sense of belonging. Once they acclimate and get used to the idea, “they really feel like they’ve found their home, they’ve found their peers when they come to us.”
Brick Works, Waterloo, Ontario
That, in and of itself, can be a transformative experience, and that’s precisely where the work of Brick Works begins: per Goodfellow, “to let them know that, yes, this is a place where you can celebrate who you are.” Launched in Waterloo with a few hundred campers in 2012, this coming summer Brick Works will draw more than 6000 participants to 13 locations across southern Ontario. That kind of growth is uncommon in the world of kids’ programming, and is a testament to the approach and quality of the sessions on offer. Each location is managed by certified instructors with professional teaching experience in STEM-related subjects. These aren’t people who come to tech casually, but who themselves are invested in delivering substantive programming that will build sound, transferable skills.
From day one, that’s the kind of environment that Goodfellow wanted to be able to offer, one that was genuine, in which the tech elements would be approached in dedicated, thoughtful ways. Kids wouldn’t build Lego sets in the morning and then swim in the afternoon, but instead have time to engage substantively with coding, game development, and robotics; they’d be mentored by those who are equally dedicated, and who are keen to encourage a deeper experience and understanding of the topic areas. “Our camps are about getting kids to be content creators and not just content consumers,” he says. “It’s all about getting the kids to be in control of their digital environment.”
That sense of empowerment is further enhanced through working alongside like-minded, equally talented peers. “They are talking to their neighbour saying ‘I want to build a porthole’ or ‘I need to make torches for exploring in this cave, how do I do that?’ And their neighbour will explain it to them. … They are chatting with each other, and they also are ones who are conveying their knowledge.”
Those kinds of social benefits may not be what draws families initially, though they are what they are most prone to comment on afterward. Says Goodfellow, “they’re getting that reassurance that something they’re doing has value and that they can influence their peers. It increases their status, and you see their confidence grow throughout the week.” In light of that, parents regularly identify Brick Works as a valued alternative. “They tell us that our camp is the first camp where their kid is super excited to get to camp, because the activities that we’re doing are in the wheelhouse of that child.”
It’s fun, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s fun that can be taken seriously. Which, of course, is what any camp should be about. They aren’t resorts, but unique environments designed to achieve a specific end: growth. Which is why you’re likely to hear Goodfellow speaking in the same terms that directors of more traditional camps do. “We want the kids to leave with a greater self-confidence, more grit.” And they do. Because, video games or otherwise, it’s camp. That’s what camp is.