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Saul: Welcome to episode eight of Life in the Time of Corona, a podcast exploring the many ways to stay healthy and sane in these strange times. I’m Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a Developmental and Clinical Health Psychologist.
Summer is coming. Usually that means summer camp for millions of children. According to the American Camp Association, camp is a $15 billion industry in the United States with more than 14,000 camps, one-and-a-half million employees, and more than 14 million people attending. Not this year. Parents, whatever else they’re doing, even more than usual need a safe and engaging experience for the children once school is done. Some camps are transitioning online. On the face of it, that sounds about as far away from summer camp as we can get.
Today we’re going to talk with somebody who can tell us why online camp is much more than a poor substitution. Meghan Gardner is the founder and CEO of Guardian Adventures in Burlington, Massachusetts. Guardian Adventures runs year-round classes, events and camps that use indirect storytelling to help kids learn, build confidence, make friends, but mostly have fun. Meghan has been developing STEM educational programs for over 20 years for organizations all over the world. Guardian Adventures developed and is licensing an online summer camp platform.
My child has been participating in Guardian Adventures for five years and I’m constantly impressed by their ability to engage and support the children they serve. With the pandemic, Guardian adventures shifted all of their programming online. That move intrigued me because, honestly, I don’t quite understand how it can work, especially the summer camp. Meghan is here to tell us how they are pulling it off.
Meghan thank you so much for joining us today.
Meghan: My pleasure, Saul, thank you for having me on.
Saul: So one of the questions I’ve asked everybody who’s come on the podcast is, “What are some of the biggest changes that you find yourself making with the pandemic?”
Meghan: Quite a few. Like you said, the biggest challenges of moving everything online and I’m fortunate that we kind of saw this coming about three weeks in advance before we had to shit our castle doors… I say “castle” because the front of our building actually looks like a castle. And so I pulled my team aside, and I said, you know, if we do end up having to close our doors, how are we going to keep these kids engaged? Because if everyone is stuck at home and kids can’t see their friends, then we’re not doing our job. We need to be able to get them engaged, get them seeing their friends, keep them learning, keep them involved in a story where they’re a hero and hopefully managing this whole entire pandemic by being what we call a homebound hero.
Saul: Now you describe Guardian Adventures as being involved in interactive storytelling. I wonder if you could explain a little bit about what that means?
Meghan: Sure. So if you think about a passive story like in a movie theater or reading a book, the story is already prewritten. You are engaged only so far as the story is of interest to you and you’re trying to figure out the story as it goes along, and you’re being entertained in that manner. Our stories, though, adapt according to the response of the participant. So our so-called listeners are… we call them “players” because they are playing a game, essentially, because it’s not just about a story, it’s actually a gamification of the story, so that you, as the participant, have certain powers and skills that you can utilize in order to manipulate the story, and by doing this, it allows participants to have a great deal of autonomy and even agency in the outcome of the story. So the story kind of adapts, or I should say, our staff adapts the story as it goes along and it allows the kids and now adults too, because we do this for adults as well, to be a part of a story where they actually have an impact on the outcome. And in our findings that is a lot more exciting to a participant than just being engaged in a story that has one specific outcome.
Saul: I would imagine that a lot of people listening to this would think as you’ve shifted online it becomes more and more like a video game, like all a multiplayer… massive multiplayer online role playing game. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve made as you brought your programming online?
Meghan: Sure, so I should preface this that actually our off-line programs were developed with a computer game model in mind, and it’s because what we found was the computer games, the way they’re designed, are actually extremely engaging and powerful for motivation to continue playing, and so we kind of did a lot of investigation around why that was and what we discovered was that there were three really important aspects of any good computer game, which also, I think, happen to be important aspects of almost any activity like a job you enjoy, and those three are autonomy, progress, and belonging.
So autonomy is my ability as a participant to choose my next step. I have the ability to decide what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it, and how I’m going to do it, or at least some aspects of that. We call a subset of that agency… agency being the ability to actually affect the outcome… so what I mean by that is I can have a lot of autonomy in navigating through a story, but if I can’t actually change the way the story ends… or I have a very limited number of endings to the story, then I’m very limited in the amount agency that I have. So that’s the first one, we call it APB to that’s the “A”.
The “P” is a sense of progress and we would add to that a tangible sense of progress and so, when I am navigating any type of activity or a game, I need a sense that I’m getting better at what I’m doing. So in a computer game, that’s pretty obvious… you’re racking up points, you get special skills based on those points, you become more powerful as a character, you’re progressing along the story. Those little graphs up at the top of the screen show you how you’re doing. You know just a glance that you’re getting better at what you’re doing. So that’s a sense of progress. We call it tangible because in our off-line games we actually hand the kids a minted coin, which is called a skill token and they spend those tokens on more powers. So it’s something that’s very tangible. They’re very easy to put your hands on and it’s easy for you to say, “I am getting better because look at all these tokens that I’ve earned.“
And then the last one is belonging, and that’s key. You can get a sense of belonging in a noninteractive story, there is a great example… and I don’t know if you’ve ever had this, but when you get out of a movie… when the lights come up, and you turn around and you look at the person next to you who you don’t know but you just had this shared experience and you kind of nod and smile to each other and you may never see that person again, but you just had this moment where you experienced something that for that moment brought you together as a group or as a team and something that’s bigger than you. So that’s that sense of belonging, and we try to create that through the stories with the participants where they’re involved in this bigger universe, this bigger story that they have to play a role in but not by themselves, but with an entire group of other people who have different skill sets, who have different abilities and they have to all navigate that together. So that’s APB, Autonomy, Progress and Belonging.
So we took that and we said, “Okay how can we take those elements, bring them into the online environment for our adventures, but still preserve them?” And so along with that we took a look at what are the key elements that we’re doing right in our unplugged version? Because up until now, we have prided ourselves in being called an unplugged experience. When the kids show up to camp, they have to turn their phones over to the nurse. They can make appointments to make calls or they can request a time to make a call, but they’re not running around camp with a phone or any kind of screens. And that was really important to us because a lot of the kids are so engaged in screens nowadays, that it is important for them to have time without screens and get this face-to-face interaction. So we did that by using a Zoom environment. There are programs out there that have an immersive videogame type environment where you can kind of walk kids through an adventure somewhat together, but they’re not looking at each other, they’re still looking at a computer-generated realm for most of the time, and they’re clicking and they’re doing stuff with their mouse as opposed to physically engaged in it.
So what we did when we moved online, we chose, instead a Zoom environment, and we chose to have the counselor or the instructor walk them through the story again as a person, so that they are looking at the face of the instructor who is telling them a story, just like they would in our off-line environment. And then on top of that they would interact with the other kids as well, they would be able see each other on the screen, and when they wanted to make a choice on an action they would actually have to get up out of their chairs, and mime that action, because our big objective in these adventures is to get kids out of their chairs as much as possible, because it’s really not happening in a lot of the online interactions they are having right now with school or even with video games. So that key aspect of getting them physically engaged with what they are witnessing is really important to us. So we were able to preserve that type of environment and that is pretty exciting to us because we have found from parents’ feedback that that is a really important aspect of what we’re providing.
Saul: That’s great. So you’ve taken these aspects of what makes video gaming great, the autonomy, the progress, the belonging and you’ve integrated it into your online experience. It really, I think, is what you do off-line as well.
Saul: And I like that that you are using the Zoom environment so that individuals are… the folks are interacting with each other rather than interacting with computer-generated characters and that you are having them mime action. One of the things that has been interesting is his hearing about how you’ve been doing your fencing classes and miming that action. If I was a parent who didn’t know much about Guardian Adventures how can this really… how can this online camp really capture the camp experience?
Meghan: So the first thing to note is it’s going to be different. It’s not going to be the same thing as what our off-line camps are and I can’t say that enough because people were coming into this expecting that it’s going to exactly mimic the last years’ camps and I don’t want to set them up for failure of expectation, but what we can do is still provide those key elements, that sense of belonging, the autonomy and the progress and still have a level of physical activity that is not replicated in a lot of your online engagement. And I think it’s really important that we’re doing our best right now as innovators to try to create a level of engagement that will help not just the kids but the parents, who are working from home right now, who don’t have any other option.
So there are a lot of summer camps, especially in the Massachusetts area that have opted not to go live this year. There are some that are saying, “We’re going to wait and see until more like August or so to see if it’s possible to go live”. So we’re in a watch and see. We’re going to wait until we get more feedback from the government as well as health… very much the health departments, because they’re really the deciding factor. So everything we’re looking at as we continue moving forward is about providing parents with the ability to have their kids engaged in a safe, fun and even educational environment… but not educational as you think of with school… because right now, a lot of parents are like, “Online school is not working for my kid”. And that’s true, we get it… total kudos, by the way to teachers who are just doing an unbelievable job, trying their best to reach their kids… but they’re really handcuffed right now and they’re really in a tough situation. We, thankfully, are able to put fun ahead of education which we actually think is really important because in a learning environment, especially a learning environment right now where there is so much low-level stress because of this pandemic… learning under stress is very difficult. It’s a much higher hurdle.
So for us, we’re trying to help the kids to relax and have fun then slip some education in there because when you’re having fun, when you’re being in a playful mood, you are far more open to learning than you are when you’re in an environment that is unidirectional, I’m just receiving information, I’m trying to remember, I’m trying to put it back out in a way that assesses and shows that I understand the material. And we find that when kids are having fun… and adults, by the way… when they’re having fun, and especially when they’re emotionally engaged in the subject, their learning and their retention of whatever the topic is goes way up. So if we can help provide a little bit of an uptick, at least in the retention if not learning new things and seeing leaning… going back to that idea of learning as being a lifelong endeavor, something you never want to just, “Ah I’m done with school, I don’t need to learn now.” Because that is part of our mission, is to inspire lifelong learners who want to make a difference in the world.
Saul: So, it’s almost like you’re saying that just as we are going into a new normal we’re going to be having a new camp experience.
Saul: And I certainly agree with you this sort of ongoing low level and sometimes not so low-level stress, is having a big impact on all sorts of mental health issues including the ability to just be open to learning new things, and I have certainly found at least anecdotally that engaging the kids in an experience like you do, that really does help reduce that stress or at least open a little window to allow for some learning. Do you think there is actually any unique benefits to taking the camp online?
Meghan: I have to say I’m biased. I would prefer not to be an online camp. However there are people who don’t… for whatever… it could be the pandemic, it could be that there are kids who just don’t have access to a camp for whatever reason… I mean the one thing that really inspires me is the idea that there could be kids who are, you know, compromised, and they can’t go to camp… maybe they can’t even go to camp outside of a pandemic. There are kids who may be hospital bound, there may be kids who are sick or whatever the reason, they can’t get to camp, and to be able to give them this type of experience in a form that they can interact with, that’s exciting. So expanding our reach, that is exciting.
The experience… of course, I have to reshape in my mind, my expectations, because like most parents, I think of an offline experience as being somewhat superior to an online experience. At the same time though, I think as parents and as educators and as, you know, the non-digital natives that we are… we need to step outside of that an instead look at it as both have their advantages and both have their disadvantages.
I think in an online environment when kids are playing like an avatar-type character, it actually can sometimes allow a child or even an adult to put on an aspect of their persona that they don’t feel comfortable practicing in a live environment. And if you will, that’s really playing pretend, right? Which unfortunately I think in modern day because so much media is so rich and immersive that the idea of playing pretend, we outgrow that, I think, a lot sooner. Because in my age demographic when you got home from school, you put on your play clothes, and you were out the door for the rest of the afternoon until dinner time playing pretend, like sports and playing pretend with your friends and there were no video games and TV was very much regulated in my household for a good reason. But now that doesn’t happen so much, you know? The playing pretend has kind of been co-opted by this immersive environment, gaming environment, which offers different aspects but I think that ability to create story, create narrative on your own without a game environment bringing it to you is really key.
And I think that when you are in a live environment where you are given some stimulus, you’re given at least a background story, and you’ve got other kids there and you’ve got some antagonists and allies going on, you’re navigating a story which is the best elements, by the way, of an online game… you’re kind of in that middle zone where you may not be purely playing pretend like, you know, like I said when I went out and played outside after school, but I’m at least in the middle zone where I have a lot more availability, a lot more breadth of imagination that if I’m in this very specific gaming environment, it’s kind of a… it’s called the sandbox mentality.. you know, the sandbox type of game where instead of you’re being driven through a very specific story, you’re being plopped down into a universe where pretty much you decide where the story is going to go and what shape it takes. So that’s what we’re kind of trying to preserve, is that middle ground between the online gaming and learning experience and the off-line, and doing that with our off-line adventures, but we’re also trying to keep many elements of that over to our online gaming experience.
Saul: So trying to keep it as similar as possible or at least having those elements, the autonomy, progress and belonging. As you have shifted your programming online, what’s been most surprising to you?
Meghan: I was surprised at how many of our clients didn’t hesitate… I think it was 70% of our members were converted to the online format in a week. We’re now up to around 95%, I believe, of our weekly clients… and then we gained a bunch of people… campers actually, who normally only see us in the summertime who are all stuck at home, they were like, “Wait, I can go online and see all my friends from camp and I can be involved in your weekly Dungeons & Dragons or your weekly classes?” And so they signed up immediately. So that’s really cool. I was rather astounded. I thought there would be a lot more hesitancy, but I think what happened was parents went… some parents went a couple of weeks before wading in and they realized they needed some kind of engagement for their kids, and they wanted their kids to see their friends in a safe environment that was monitored by our instructors.
So the other thing that was surprising… this was actually really surprising, was how many camps didn’t seem to plan for this. So I started talking to other camps and realizing that the entire industry was pushed back on its heels, not just emotionally, but planning-wise. And thankfully this happened before spring break so we were able to immediately plan on a full week, full day, programming and tested it. And it was successful, it was very successful, and we learned a lot. We learned an amazing amount from it, but it was successful for us to go, “Wait, we actually can do this for the summer”.
So what we did was we pivoted, and we started creating online training programs for our future summer camp staff, knowing there was a good chance we were going to be running summer camp online. We’ve always planned for both paths just in case. Because we were holding on to some optimism that we would be able to run some kind of live camp in a safe manner, as long as it’s safe. So we’ve been planning for both but what we were able to do was realize that this was not only a good thing that we were doing but our online training platform could actually be utilized by other camps.
So what we have done is we’ve created an online training platform for other camps to run somewhat toned down versions of what we’re running. We’ve created a whole new system, all new game system, we call it a universal game system which can apply across any kind of story universe. So like, a zombie apocalypse universe or a wizards and warriors type universe or a space astronaut version. We have a spy version, we have a wilderness protectors version, and then we’re licensing those to summer camps and on top of that we’re creating distinct modules. So where the adventure is all written out. So they can utilize just the whole system where they can use that system to make their own adventures, or they can also purchase the prewritten modules which will walk them through how to run the story and all their images and assets, audio files, special effects, even their marketing for it is all prepared for them. And we are right around 200 camps currently testing out a free zombie module that we put out and our hope is that if that looks like it’s going to work for them that they will consider licensing programs. So that’s kind of exciting.
I certainly did not expect this to be our future at the start of the year. And the idea that our programs would be able to run, literally, around the globe. Not just in the US, because there’s no reason why a camp out in Korea can’t run our programming. So it’s really neat that we’re able to take all his labor that we’re putting into this and possibly make a difference for so many camps out there that are right now scrambling, because they didn’t have the resources that we had to be able to prepare for this online summer.
Saul: So you are not only adapting to the new normal, but I think you’re creating it as we go along.
Meghan: Yes. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Saul: For parents, do you have any advice for them, what they should look for in an online camp or questions they might ask?
Meghan: Yes, so how are your children being monitored? Is there a counselor there and what hours are they there for your child… If your child is struggling with something or if they are having difficulty with another camper, is number one.
Number two would be how are your campers allowed to interact with each other? Are they allowed to privately message each other without any knowledge of the counselor, because if so, you can get into a situation of cyberbullying.
Number 3 is how are they going to get a hold of you, the parent, if something goes wrong. So if the child is in front of the screen and we see something is really upsetting to the kind of, or something is going wrong with the child like health-wise, we have a list of all of the parents and their telephone numbers and we will call them right away to say, “Hey, can you go check on your kid, something is wrong”. So even though the parent is in the same household, looking for some level of a camp monitoring your child is important.
Another thing that is key is your expectations as a parent as to the level of engagement, especially the level of monitored engagement. So when we’re running our online summer camps, if you sign on for the full-day version which is 9 AM to 3 PM or extended which is 8:30 to I think it’s 5:30… or even our… so “overnight camp” which goes from 9 AM to 9 PM… we are… our counselors are there the entire time, with the exceptions of dinner break, but we have a team of counselors that we’re rotating in, but there isn’t any time unless it’s specified like in dinner break, if you’re in front of the screen, you’re engaged with the counselor.
So there are quite a few camps that are selling a camp program where it’s an hour or hour-and-a-half with the counselor and then you’re expected to get offscreen and go do an activity which is great, because we encourage our kids to get offscreen and go do activities as well, but our counselor is sitting there and waiting for them to come back. So if you have kids who are done with whatever the activity is in hour or some kids are done in a half-hour, they’re not going to their parents to look for that engagement. They’re coming back for some social time or to talk to the counselor, they have somebody who is always there for them to engage with, and that’s key for us, because for a lot of parents, they are working from home and they’re looking for anything that will give them that secure time to be able to get their work done. The key thing is providing options for parents. Because not every parent is in the same situation. Some need just a couple hours of time to get things done, some need the entire day.
Saul: That’s great, so there’s lots of things… lots of options, lots of ways to find good experiences. As we’re wrapping up there are some “one thing” questions that I like to ask. So what is one thing that people should take away from our discussion?
Meghan: One thing… there are options. It can be so demoralizing right now to be a parent and to think that I’m going into summer and I don’t have any idea how I’m going to navigate this summer, because there are no summer camps open, and I’m trying to get my work done and my kids are bored out of their minds, or you think, you know what, they’re not going to be in front of a screen, they’re going to go outside and play, but I want to challenge that, because when we were young, we went outside to play… we went outside to play with our friends. We went to the local swimming hole or swimming pool to go swimming. But they’re all going to be closed for a while, so there’s a lot of things you can’t do this summer that you could do when we were younger or even pre-COVID. If you’re trying that out and it works, great. If you’re trying it out and it’s not working and your kid is still bored, your kid still needs some kind of engagement, and they want to see their friends, then this is an option for you. It’s not going to be the best option for all people, but it is something that at least you can be open to considering.
Saul: What is one thing that you are doing to take care of yourself?
Meghan: Hmm, that’s a good question. I am so, so lucky that my oldest daughter has chosen during this time of isolation to only socialize physically with myself and my husband. So she and her fiancé and my husband and I get to see them twice a week and that really… I’ll tell you, that means so much to me, to just get that hug, and get that time to be with them. Outside of that… and then we Skype with our youngest daughter who is at Cornell University at least once a week, usually twice a week. So getting time, even though I am off at the end of the day, I am sick and tired of the video, of the screen… I will still connect with my friends and I reach out to people who are supportive of me and I chat with them. I also have mentors and that’s key to me, checking in with my mentors, my business mentor, even a mentor who is a therapist, to just ask that question… what are you doing this week to take care of yourself?
Saul: And finally, what is one thing that you think the coronavirus experience has changed forever?
Meghan: Oh, we have yet to even see the effect of this, and I think it’s going to be even more profound than we think it is. Wow, a lot of it depends, but I think business-wise… if you’re in business, you better be a hybrid business meaning you’re both online and you’re also brick and mortar. And the reason I say that is because right now the virus has hit us physically, right, in our physical environment. I do believe that one of the future big viruses is going to be on the Internet and it is going to take down a lot of our Internet infrastructure and the businesses that are going to thrive then are your brick and mortars because they’re local, and they have a presence, a real live presence. So if you… but I’ve seen a lot of businesses that have no Internet presence right now are suffering greatly… or the people who are strictly online and have no off-line presence… for example I am a client of this company called Constant Contact, and they do email lists right? And they send out your emails for you and I asked one of my friends who works there, what are they going to do when the Internet backbone is down and they cannot deliver those messages, those emails, for their clients long-term… say about a month… what you do in that situation? You better have a snail-mail version, you know, that will allow you to reach out to clients. So I would say on the business level we should be thinking about making sure that we have our bases covered and are both online and off-line.
I think for parents… I think we are going to see some interesting outcomes both positive and negative, but I think one of the best things I have seen coming out of this, is I can’t count how many times I’ve been out for a walk and I see parents outside playing with their children at hours that they normally would not be available. So I see a lot more parents taking breaks from work and getting outside and engaging their kids. So that kind of connection I truly hope isn’t lost. Also family dinners which have really fallen by the wayside. If you have kids living at home, I think a lot more parents are now sitting down and saying, let’s eat a meal together, not for a special occasion, but let’s do this each night together. And for me, I raised my children with that, that was non-discussable, we had a meal together every single day and I still count that as being a really important part, not just of their childhood, but of my day which is to share a meal with loved ones and I’m hearing more people who are in the situation right now who are sharing that with their kids. And that’s a really big difference than what was happening six months ago. And I do hope that that is preserved.
Saul: So some of the outcomes of the crisis may be positive with more family connectedness, more family engagement. And certainly the summer has some options for parents and for their families out there, and I would say that now is probably the time to find the options that work for you.
Saul: This is Life in the Time of Corona. You can subscribe to the show at iTunes or wherever you get podcasts. Please rate the show and leave comments. Find out more at my website, saulrosenthalPhD.com and follow me on twitter and Instagram @drsaulrosenthal. Meghan Gardner is founder and CEO of Guardian Adventures which provides year-round educational programming through immersive interactive storytelling. You can find out more at guardup.com. They also have a YouTube channel. I will add links to those sites to my program notes, as well some photos of the Guardian Adventures castle that Meghan mentioned earlier in the show. Meghan, thanks so much for joining us.
Meghan: Thank you so much, Saul.
Saul: And thank you listeners. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Life in the Time of Corona.
Saul Rosenthal, PhD May 28th, 2020