5 Things to Look for in a Technology Camp

Technology camp is one of those things every kid should look forward to. And why not? When you think about everything your child can learn these days at a good camp – like LEGO robotics, video game design, graphic design, animation and even 3-D modeling and game design – it’s hard not to get a little excited for summer!


But while part of the appeal of tech camp is that it’s way more hands-on than most classes at school, a good tech camp shouldn’t be only fun and games. Kids need to learn about technology, but they also need to have an inviting, open-ended environment that fosters creativity and exploration.


What does that look like? In our opinion, here are five things you should look for when searching for the right tech camp for your kids.


1. A constructionist approach.


Ever heard of Seymour Papert? One of the pioneering fathers of artificial intelligence and a former MIT professor, Papert worked extensively to advance the field of machine learning and computer technology. He believed that children could enhance their learning and spark creativity with the use of computers.


Papert’s legacy lives on today in the form of MIT Media Lab’s “Lifelong Kindergarten Group,” dedicated to helping children learn about computers the same way they learn about, say, finger painting. Notable projects that have come out of the Media Lab include LEGO MINDSTORMS and Scratch.


A good tech camp should follow the Lifelong Kindergarten Group model and take the constructionist approach to learning about technology. No one teaches children how to finger paint by forcing them to follow a rigid step-by-step process.


2. An open “curriculum.”


One of the biggest continuing debates in American higher education is whether open curriculums are better than traditional curriculums. Amherst College, for example, has a mostly open curriculum where students in any major need to take only a few core classes toward their major. But the vast majority of classes are electives.


In the same way, a great tech camp sees the value in letting students guide their own learning by giving them a variety of options. Even at a young age, kids naturally respond to what they are interested in. But without different subjects to choose from, how would they recognize what they like?


3. Self-guided projects.


Children will always need guidance. But far too often we don’t give them the credit they deserve. Going back to the finger-painting analogy: children will understand how to do it on their own after they’ve been shown it once. But they won’t know whether they can do it until you let them actually try.


Trying inevitably leads to some failures. Like a toddler learning to walk, kids need to fail many times without getting hurt, physically and emotionally, and it takes a special environment to ensure that every failure is a step toward success. Tech camps that do too much hand-holding and didactic teaching miss the mark. Projects at tech camp should be largely self-guided. Of course, camp counselors should be there to help, but they shouldn’t replace constructive learning.


Kids can also learn from each other. When campers are grouped by interest, regardless of age, there’s plenty of opportunity for older children to be role models for the younger ones. It also reinforces their knowledge of the subject matter and helps them develop leadership skills.


4. Plenty of “me” time.


Tech camp is a special sort of camp that requires a lot of hands-on thinking. While teamwork is great, this isn’t sports camp, the boy scouts, or the girl scouts. In order for young children to really process technology and take it all in on their own terms, they need to have periods of time during which there are no distractions.


That can mean different things for different children. A tech camp that constantly forces children to participate in group activities isn’t going to be the best environment for all children. Some children prefer to work on projects alone. It’s important to know your child’s personality well enough to know what “me” time means for them and to find the right tech camp to fit their needs.


5. Small group sizes.


Regardless of your child’s personality, though, small group sizes are key. Studies show that smaller groups are much more effective than larger ones. Just ask the teachers! While extroverted children may do better in larger settings, all types of children will get more of the attention they need and deserve in smaller-group settings.


Leonid Tunik is the founder of Empow Studios, bringing tech, arts, and play together for elementary and middle-school children.

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29 Apr 2015

By Leonid Tunik