Skip to main content

Mimi Ito’s Connected Camps uses Minecraft as an educational platform to connect youth engagement with learning.

Research scientist Mimi Ito wants your kids to play more after-school video games—and for good reason. Together with Los Angeles Makerspace founder Tara Brown and Institute of Play founder Katie Salen Tekinbas, Ito created “Connected Camps,” a benefit corporation that uses popular “sandbox” (open world) video game Minecraft as an educational platform.

“We saw a real opportunity with Minecraft as a platform, where we could connect youth engagement with learning, so our offerings [through Connected Camps] have been summer camps and after-school programs where kids can learn how to design and create games and learn coding through Minecraft,” Ito explains.

As director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research and Learning Initiative, Ito researches “connected learning,” which emphasizes equitable, sociable and participatory learning using the power of today’s technology. It promotes learning through active production and design, as well as tries to engage young people’s interests. It also fosters a sense of shared purpose and stays openly networked, meaning it cuts across experiences in school, at home and in the community.

“Young people can have deep, important learning experiences when they’re tied to something they’re genuinely interested in and supported by peers, which is also tied to learning and opportunity,” Ito says. “Technology can help us create these opportunities.”

With these ideals in mind, Ito and her fellow founders began to understand the appeal of Minecraft—though their interest wasn’t immediate. In an earlier connected learning project, Ito casually piloted the concept of Minecraft camps. “Minecraft was not a big focus for us,” she recalls. “We were doing work with digital storytelling and Arduino, and robotics. We thought we’d try Minecraft just to see how it goes, and it was such a success. It was so popular with the students and parents—we had 250 kids.”

Minecraft promotes a do-it-yourself ethic, allowing players to spin up their own servers and create inclusive communities with specific values. “With Minecraft, we were able to encourage positive learning dynamics and digital citizenship,” Ito says. “It’s not just about the activities, but being able to participate in a community and have kids teach each other and learn together.”

Connected Camps officially launched this summer with two different tracks: Kid Club and Coding Camp. With Kid Club, players can access safe, moderated servers after school and on weekends for collaborative educational opportunities. Online camp counselors, who are students from high schools and colleges, moderate player activities that promote socio-emotional, problem-solving, coding and design skills.

Ito was particularly impressed by the upstanding digital citizenship fostered within the Kid Club. Players would self-initiate and build social norms. They founded communities, building job boards and electing mayors. If there were disputes, players would be sent to cool-down spaces to resolve their issues, learning that just because they’re online doesn’t mean they can disconnect.

“One of the really important things kids have to learn in the digital age is how to appropriately and productively participate online,” Ito explains. “When parents think the Internet is bad, young people aren’t mentored on how to speak to each other, how to have an appropriate discourse, or how to make friends online.” Connected Camps hosted a parent server to help acclimate parents to the online world of their children. “This is filling that need parents have for engaged technology and STEM learning,” Ito says.

The separate coding track was driven by immediate, tangible outcomes, such as toying with visual programming language. For instance, players programmed turtles to build their desired constructions within the game.

To date, 500 paid subscribers have joined Connected Camps, but the platform’s biggest reach lies in community programs. More than 1,500 players participate through community organizations like the Los Angeles Public Libraries and Los Angeles Makerspace. Connected Camps has also partnered with public schools in Chicago and other makerspace-school collaborations.

“It’s really important to me to pursue that equity agenda so that we’re not just serving kids who are already highly resourced, but we’re also trying to do it in a way that’s sustainable as a business,” Ito says.

Connected Camps is now in the midst of its school-year model, inviting players to engage with it as an after-school enrichment activity. And while Ito remains impressed with the coding and technical skills students continue to build, she sees a lot of potential in the social enrichment of online interaction. “The thing that kind of blows me away is the strong relationships that kids develop with each other and with the counselors, even though it’s all in game,” she says.

— Story by Courtney Hamilton