How Do LARP-based Summer Camps Help Kids Learn to Play?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, May 18th, 2015

LARP Summer Camp

LARPing, or live action roleplaying, is becoming an increasingly mainstream activity. A whole generation of people who grew up playing D&D, visiting Renaissance Fairs, and spending their weekends running around the woods at LARPs are becoming parents. Whether they’re hungry for the chance to share some inter-generational geekiness or introduce kids to the pastimes they love, now they have the chance. LARP-based summer camps are popping up and offering kids the chance to spend their school breaks learning how to play, appreciate storytelling, and generally engage their imaginations.

The Wizards and Warriors Summer Camp in Massachusetts is one great example. Kids learn how to solve problems and build their confidence, while having fun in the process. The camp is sponsored by Guard Up!, an organization in Burlington, MA that offers classes in fencing, historical swordsmanship, stage combat, and more. The founder of the center was the mother of two young daughters. She worked creatively to find ways to help the kids unplug, so they would enjoy real life as much as their virtual ones. Part of that involved interactive bedtime stories featuring the kids as the heroes, where they were able to influence the direction of the tales. As they grew, this interest evolved into the idea of creating a summer camp that promoted interactivity, fun, and learning. The camp actually calls their experience an educational adventure, rather than a LARP, although many of the elements will be familiar to LARPers. The same organization is also sponsoring Zombie Summer Camp for budding horror fans.

Campers range between ages 6 and 17. Some are day campers, while others stay overnight. Each camper develops a character, and gets to play a part in how the story unfolds over the course of the week. The stories focus on putting kids in the role of hero, and encouraging values such as honor and courage. There is a lot of emphasis on kids taking an active part in decision making, and understanding the impact of their actions on the game.

Logistically, adult counselors/storytellers guide those discussions to help participants make some of the educational connections. Strategy sessions are an important part of the experience. But there’s also a lot of physical activity. Campers run around and hit “enemies” with boffer weapons. Boffer weapons are constructed out of safe materials, often PVC pipes and lots of foam. Enemies are in costume and are played by adult and teen counselors. By building on popular models associated with video games – basically reward and progress – but getting kids active and engaged in the physical world, the camp is a win-win proposition.

Each camp experience is built around a story. One example that the founder discussed in an interview was a steampunk-flavored story that featured Dr. Watson chasing Sherlock through a “Gate of Destiny” into a mythical land of Sidleterra. Recently, the team behind the program joined forces to create The Story School, a non-profit which is focused on increasing awareness of the educational value of interactive stories.

Summer 2015 has quite a lineup in store. The BBC has granted The Story School exclusive rights to use the popular Dr. Who character in their education adventures (to be portrayed by one of their theatrical educators).  Meanwhile, fans of the The Walking Dead can participate in a NERF-based Zombie apocalypse survival storyline.

What’s exciting about the LARP-based summer camp idea is that it’s growing in popularity. The wild global phenomenon  Harry Potter has made its mark in Harry Potter camps. At Harry Potter Camp in Logan, Utah, for example, more than 100 kids take part in sessions each summer. The camp builds on the world explored in the Harry Potter franchise. Kids participate in wandmaking workshops. They meet “creatures” through animal meet and greet sessions, while learning about biology and animal husbandry. Potions and alchemy become a means to conduct supervised scientific experiments. And of course, the camp features Houses, awards, and many more magical elements.

Harry Potter Camp

From an entertainment design perspective, we’re excited about the growing popularity of LARP camps for several reasons. One of the most important reasons is that it’s becoming harder to find venues for kids to play. Often, today “playing” has become synonymous with video games. But these camps encourage a different kind of hands-on, immersive play that deeply taps into the power of imagination. The use of storytelling, world building, and theming touches such as costume and setting are a compelling context for memorable educational experiences. Opportunities for kids to explore values, develop logical thinking and strong decision making skills, and build confidence in a safe environment are rare. The world needs more places for this to happen – and if it can incorporate fun, that’s even better!

Images and videos sourced courtesy of Harry Potter Camp, LARPING.org, Guard Up!, YouTube

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