Why Minecraft Camp is More Than Playing Video Games

Kurt Putnam

Kurt Putnam

“When we're in game worlds, we become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment's notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again,” said game researcher Jane McGonigal in her 2012 TED talk.

interior-minecraft.jpgVideo gaming has evolved to be much more than just sitting in front of a screen. Games today challenge kids to collaborate, learn languages, be creative and become more resilient — all qualities that will help them succeed in the real world.

Minecraft, the most popular video game ever with more than 22 million downloads, is a prime example of how video games can help children learn. When playing Minecraft, players explore a sandbox world made up of 3D blocks. They have the opportunity to mine resources, craft new tools and structures, fight monsters—and, most importantly, collaborate with others to create worlds.

Minecraft has such learning potential for students that we’ve chosen to include it in our summer day camp program at Whitby. We spoke with instructor Jordan Domkowski about the game to find out why it’s such a powerful learning tool and discover how Minecraft helps children develop 21st century skills.

Exclusive Interview: Why Minecraft Camp is More Than Playing Video Games

Whitby: Jordan, thank you for talking with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with playing Minecraft?

Jordan Domkowski: I work for a company called Ivy Bound, and my main role with them is as a SAT proctor. I first started to play Minecraft with my girlfriend's younger brother and realized how kids can get lost in it. It's actually a lot of fun.

As far as the game itself, it's very basic. It has a lot of fundamental, survival-type conflicts to it, but it's actually a pretty fun game once you get into it. The more I talked to my peers—I work at the Community College here in Connecticut—the more I realized what a huge following it had. A few of my coworkers are full-time gamers who have a whole medieval kingdom set up where they play with friends from around the world.

Whitby: Were you the one who pioneered the Minecraft camp for Kids Corner?

Jordan Domkowski: Yes. The owner of Ivy Bound called me one day to ask if I played Minecraft. I said, "Yeah, I do!" Then he said, "Want to teach a class on it?" So I built a lesson plan and ran with it.

I taught the first Minecraft class that Whitby offered—it had only six kids. That was this time last year. Now I have 19 or 20 kids, and there’s actually a waiting list because there were so many kids who wanted to sign up.

Whitby: What happens during a Minecraft camp? Can you walk us through what goes on?

Jordan Domkowski: I break the Minecraft camp up into two sections. For the first half, I teach the new kids the fundamentals of the game. The age group varies from first grade to fourth or fifth grade, so there's a huge age range of kids in the class. I use the first five weeks to show them how the game works and teach them how to play.

The game has two basic functions: survival or creative mode. Creative allows you full access to all the blocks and materials in the game, so you can create your own little utopia. Survival makes it so you have to survive the game. It puts all the elements against you. You have to build a shelter, find food—essentially the fundamentals of trying to survive, as if you were in the wild—and you have to see if you can make it to the end.

Looking for a Minecraft summer camp in Greenwich, Connecticut? 
Your child can spend this summer immersed in Minecraft, among other academic and athletic activities. Explore Whitby School's summer camp program.

In the first five weeks, we stay in Creative mode. I show kids how to build stuff and teach them the different functions of each of the blocks so they can grasp the whole concept of the game.

The second half of the class, I usually open it up and ask what they want to do. The options are either we can “survive together,” where I (as the instructor) am surviving right along with them and have equal amount of access to everything that they do. Otherwise we can “build together,” which is where I give them complete access to creative mode and we try to build a town or a city.

One of the first classes we did, we built a harbor with pirate ships and just a whole slew of different stuff. We had a hut where the pirates could trade goods with the villagers. It was a fun thing to do, to build it together. The survival stuff is also quite fun: last semester, the kids decided to “survive together.” They had to really understand how to play with each other and work together to accomplish a consistent goal.

Whitby: A lot of schools using Minecraft to teach collaboration. What do you think the kids get from it?

Jordan Domkowski: There are two things I think the kids take away from playing Minecraft in a large group made of a variety of ages. The first is that Minecraft breaks down barriers. I’ve observed that kids naturally separate themselves into groups. The girls sit with girls, boys sit with the boys and kids of the same age typically sit together—but playing Minecraft helps them all learn to work together.

I had one second grader who was very good at Minecraft. He definitely played a lot more than the others, and he was already ready to go from the first day of camp. If I'd left him alone for an hour, he would have built an entire city.

The cool thing was, because he knew so much about Minecraft, a lot of the other kids—regardless of age group and gender—wanted to work with him. If I was busy helping other students, they would just ask him. A lot of the older students would ask him about stuff he'd built and (without any prompting from me) he was happy to demonstrate and give examples to the other kids. It was really cool to see those kids break down age and gender groups to build together.

That is always the coolest transformation. On the first day of class, everyone breaks up into their little groups. By the fourth class, they are all sitting at the same table together, because they're all trying to survive. They have the same exact problem, the same exact struggle. I remember when I first met some of these kids, they were really stuck to their own age group. Now when they come to class, they spread out. They sit with a diverse group that all works together.

When they play Minecraft, kids learn to be able to work with anyone of any age group or gender to accomplish the same goals.

The second thing kids really take away from Minecraft is the whole survival mindset. Minecraft is a great way to teach kids how to survive without putting them in a real life-or-death situation. It's just a video game, but it is a pretty good simulator when it comes to surviving the elements. Kids learn the fundamentals really quickly: finding shelter, crafting the tools they need, learning how to find food, learning how to farm and how to gather the resources they need to survive the game.

That's definitely something you can use in other aspects of your life, such as camping or other outdoor activities. Because there are monsters that only come out at night, Minecraft also really teaches you the importance of shelter and daylight, and that you have to make sure you're well healed, that you're not hungry.

Whitby: With survival mode, clearly there's the possibility of failure. Does that affect kids?

Jordan Domkowski: Oh yeah, definitely. They have the ability to fail. If you were to play the game normally, when you die, you drop everything you have in your pockets on the ground and only have a certain amount of time to pick it up again before it disappears. Because we have a lot of younger kids in the group who are more likely to make mistakes, I keep it so they don’t lose everything.

In our game, they just get sent back to what's called the spawn point.This helps them to think strategically because if they build their house close to the spawn point, or leave markers to help guide them to their house, they can get back to it faster.

Whitby: What do you see after the first time or multiple times a kid's character dies?

Jordan Domkowski: The first time the kids die, they're a little more hesitant to do the same thing they did before. There are monsters in the game called Creepers: they're very quiet, and they sneak up behind you and blow up. You’ll find students will put up defensive perimeters, build traps and try different ways to outsmart the game so their house doesn't get attacked. After a few times, the students become more numb to it. They just think, “Oh, whatever. I’ll just fix whatever the Creeper blew up."

Kids also learn to make decisions strategically. They have to decide, "Do I want to fight this monster? Is there room for me to fight, or should I just run away?"

The younger students are usually more likely to run away, but the older students love to attack—it's all for the glory of it. Often the older or more experienced players end up looking out for the younger players to make sure they don't lose all their progress. The older students will make sure there aren't any monsters around the younger students' base.

Whitby: When you play the creative side of Minecraft where kids have the ability to build anything they want to, what do you see them create?

Jordan Domkowski: On the creative side, the kids are willing to try a lot of different things. When students start out, their houses always start off looking like a giant rectangle or square. So in order to inspire them, I always create a couple really detailed builds myself. Once I start to show the students what they can do and make them feel comfortable with the different types of materials, they really start to explore.

If kids decide they want to “build together” for the second half of the camp, I encourage them to do a Google search and research how to do new builds. My last group that “built together” wanted to do a pirate build with a boat, which was a really cool challenge.

The kids looked up Minecraft builds of pirate ships, pirate harbors, and checked out the different materials they used. A couple girls saw a few builds of ships that they really liked: they liked the way one build did the sails, the torches and the cannons. Then they took the best of what they saw and applied it to their design.

First they drew out their plan and figured out where they wanted everything to go, then they assigned each other different tasks. For instance, they’d say, "I’m going to build the front end of the boat, you’ll build the back end, you’ll build the dock." So they start off really basic, and then go create crazy things.

Minecraft is just like Legos, it's just virtual. You have an idea of what you want to build in your mind and then you build it.

During the camp, we make sure to balance the kids who are repeating the class with kids who are new and who have never played Minecraft before—or never even played any computer game or video game. We’ve even had some first graders who have never even logged onto a computer or done a Google search. When it comes to the “build together,” we start off together, but some of the students I have to work with more.

Whitby: Final question: how does learning Minecraft help kids be more successful students?

Jordan Domkowski: It’s huge when they develop the ability to work with their peers. When you’re in a class and the teacher says you’ll be more successful working as a group, that's the teacher telling you you'll be more successful. Here, the fact speaks for itself.

We see students gravitate to each other and naturally start working as a group. They work out what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. For example, if one student is better at creating structures and likes to create really intricate designs and builds, they'll be more drawn to building. Some students just love to mine: they love to dig the deepest, darkest holes and pick up all the materials they possibly can. When kids play Minecraft as a group, the ones who like to build, build, and the ones who like to dig, dig, and the ones that like to protect, protect. All of them work together to survive in the game.

Minecraft forces kids to find their strengths and play together as a collective—and they see that it’s more effective to play together instead of trying to do it all individually.

Usually the first few days, they try to do it all on their own. But if someone's more successful than the other, you start to see them all gravitate towards each other. That's when you start to see a giant collective of students working together and learning to collaborate. The biggest success for the students taking this class is the fact that they learn to work with each other despite age, gender, and experience to accomplish the same goal.

In the future, it will be valuable for them to have earned that skill of working with each other. Minecraft helps students succeed in collaboration, which I think is really great.

Whitby: Jordan, thank you so much for your time. We’ve really enjoyed talking to you today and are looking forward to hosting a Minecraft camp during Whitby’s summer day camp program.

Jordan Domkowski: Thank you, Whitby. I’m looking forward to the next Minecraft camp.

Jordan Domkowski will be teaching a Minecraft camp program during Whitby School’s 2016 summer camp program. Click below to learn more and to find out about our other day camp offerings.

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Kurt Putnam

Kurt Putnam

Kurt Putnam has been coaching soccer much of his adult life after playing collegiate soccer at Loughborough University in England. Licensed with the English FA, USSF and NSCAA, developing soccer players at club and high school level, in addition to his camps, has become a lifetime passion. Giving back to the game that gave him so much is something he treats as a privilege. As his own children begin their athletic journeys there are many questions relating to his own experiences as a player, coach and Athletic Director that are being raised and which he hopes to share with the Whitby community.