Why Peer Mentorship Matters to Young People

If you’re like most parents, you’re looking for fun online summer camps for your kids – something to keep them entertained, but also a program that fosters creativity, problem solving, collaboration and interest-driven learning.

Connected Camps accomplishes all that! Our mission is to build a global online community where kids build, code, play, and learn from one another. We tap the power of youth tech experts to teach and mentor, and we have served thousands of kids through years of offering online programs.

Our counselors and coaches are as enthusiastic about gaming and technology as our campers. Those youth tech experts are key to the development of each child who participates in our programs. In this post, we’ll tell you how we recruit and train counselors in order to provide a rich, engaging environment for the kids who join us.

We don’t just go by “gut feel” for training and recruiting, we diligently draw on best practices in youth mentorship in order to develop effective programs. Our founders are professors at the University of California, Irvine, and we also work closely with other respected researchers and directors.

Jean Rhodes is a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her research group is exploring ways to improve youth mentoring through evidence-based practice. She’s written a book that delves into the promise of blended models in which mentors provide “supportive accountability” to youth who are engaged in educational and mental health apps.

She has high praise for us, saying “Built on years of research and practice, Connected Camps harnesses the power of peer mentoring to advance students’ social and emotional development. Far too often, young people interact only with others their own age. Through a diverse network of peer counselors, Connected Camps provides opportunities for students to engage in meaningful conversations, to express themselves more fully, and to think more clearly and critically about the world around them.”

Is this type of learning and mentorship really possible in a seemingly simple online Minecraft camp? Absolutely! Zhen Wu, one of our counselors, said this:

I played Minecraft when I was younger, but I didn’t have this sort of online program or a near-peer counselor. Having this kind of online program allows the kids to be in a learning environment rather than just anywhere online. Furthermore, having a near-peer counselor and being able to see and interact with this counselor fosters a space where they can have fun and learn. I have kids commenting about how much fun they have in different classes.

I’ll use Builder’s Club as an example. As a counselor of Builder’s Club, I am there to monitor how the kids are building and help them set some areas for the build of the day. More than that, I am here to challenge these kids. I assign them to work with other people. By assigning them in groups or pairs, they learn to interact and solve problems with other campers.

Skills like planning, communication, and problem-solving with other people are vital in every part of their lives. They are able to practice these skills with people they don’t know, that may even be hundreds or thousands of miles away, and that’s mind-blowing! Of course, as a peer mentor, I am there to guide them when they encounter problems such as disagreement between blocks, how something is structured, and so forth.

Connected Camps co-founder Katie Salen Tekinbaş recently spoke about helping kids learn to resolve conflicts in a keynote at the international Games for Change festival. She said, “The internet and online games are two of the most powerful learning tools that we have. Kids are terrible at resolving conflict on their own; on an elementary playground, 90% of conflicts go unresolved. The same happens in online spaces. Connected Camps trains counselors (online moderators), not just to keep the peace, but to help kids learn how to solve problems and resolve conflict on their own. Counselors first learn to see conflict as a normal part of everyday life and an opportunity for problem-solving; then they help participants to do the same.”

Watch Katie’s presentation to see how we approach training our counselors, and why that’s good for your kids.

Of course, training is crucial, but so is the selection of the counselors themselves. With a diverse set of counselors, kids are more likely to see someone like themselves, which will help them envision their own future as a college student, mentor, advisor, and friend. Additionally, being led by people with different backgrounds helps kids see all types of people as leaders, which breaks down barriers of race and gender.To that end, this summer we recruited through several university offices of Access and Inclusion, reaching extensively throughout the UC and Cal State networks, as well as a number of historically black colleges, expanding our reach throughout the country. We also did direct outreach with organizations like DreamYard and The Clubhouse Network.

Our team is currently comprised of students from over 35 colleges and universities in 23 states. Diego de la Peza, our People Director, said. “We know it’s important to be intentional about the future of gaming and STEAM. At Connected Camps, we want to shape this future with young leaders who are as unique and diverse as the range of players who are gaming and creating every day.”

For example, Connected Camps is partnering with DreamYard to train a group of 10 Bronx-based youth in how to create, moderate and participate in online gaming communities. Rudy Blanco, their Director of Entrepreneurship and Gaming Programs, said, “Virtual counselors, moderators and online mentors will be the community builders of tomorrow. By training a diverse team of gamers that come from underrepresented communities, we are able to change the narrative and direction of an entire industry.”

“By hiring counselors from the Bronx, Connected Camps will train youth in best practices and empower them to begin creating online communities that are representative of the communities they are a part of,” he continued. “By joining with an amazing group like Connected Camps, we are creating impact across race, class and gender lines!”

We build all this personal development into the fabric of our hands-on online camps and clubs. Your kids will learn important principles about thriving in today’s world, but they’ll be mostly aware of the fun! As one parent told us, “My son was thrilled with connecting with his friends online, and learning new concepts about Minecraft. He was amped the rest of the day. You guys do an awesome job.”                                                       

Note: this blog is one in a series that demonstrates how we weave important principles into our programs. In the future, we’ll also discuss interest-based learning, learning in a social setting, and project-based/experiential learning.