SelfDesign® transitions its in-person camps and gatherings to meaningful, real-time opportunities for learners to connect and share

When the B.C. government suspended in-person learning in B.C. schools in mid-March to protect students and slow the spread of the COVID-19, most kindergarten to grade 12 students in the province were about to go on spring break. However, one group of SelfDesign Learning Community learners and educators was poised to spend the break together at one of the school’s sought-after in-person camps.

Since 2017, Art Intensive Camp, held in Victoria, B.C.,  has brought SelfDesign learners in grades 9–12 together from across B.C. for one week in March to connect, collaborate and share while they immerse themselves in art. To cap the week of art exploration and creation, the learners host their own reception and art show for families and the community to showcase their work.

The B.C. government’s March 2020 order cancelled Art Intensive for the first time.

So what did the Art Intensive organizing team do? They took the camp online, of course, and opened it up to all interested SelfDesign learners.

Arts Intensive goes virtual

By March 17, SelfDesign’s camps team announced Virtual Arts Intensive to start immediately – proving how creative, nimble and open SelfDesign is to adapting to circumstances and learners’ needs.

“We have an amazing Camps team and learning community,” says SelfDesign educator and camps lead facilitator Amber Santos, “and together we really do some fun stuff. It certainly feels grounding to connect and make art together in these uncertain times. We are grateful the school’s leadership gave us the go ahead to do something quick!”

The response from learners was enthusiastic. With no cap on the number of participants, 30  learners across all grades took part in the new, virtual camp.

The new format meant a new type of camp experience. Instead of gathering in person in Victoria, with many of the camp participants staying and cooking their meals together at one of the city’s hostels, the learners met over Zoom in the comfort of their own homes. Virtual Arts Intensive participants also experienced four days of morning and afternoon workshops that explored different media, techniques, and sources of inspiration. Learners, who could opt to take part in any or all of the sessions, connected and worked together on a collaborative sketchbook, explored Surrealism, and turned their hands to collage, drawing, painting and textile art.

“Our camps nurture connection, and support learners to build relationships with their peers and the camp facilitators, creating a community of inclusion,” Amber Santos says. “Our camps – whether in person or offered virtually – are jam-packed with fun and are inclusive, hands-on, collaborative, group-based and experiential learning experiences. Learners have the opportunity to connect to nature, experience culture, explore Indigenous ways of knowing, and express themselves.”

Annika, a SelfDesign learner who has attended many of our camps over the years, says the different camp formats each have something to offer learners. With virtual camps, “there is no stress about getting there, I am safe at home, and I don’t feel anxiety about interacting with my peers,” she says. “We get to know each other better, which prepares and makes us even more excited for when we get to meet in person [and] it’s awesome to see my friends in real time and hear their voices even though they often live far away. In-person camps are special because we come together and meet new people, go to workshops where we get to work with one another and make life-long connections. At all the in-person camps I’ve been to, I’ve learned things about myself that have helped me grow.”

Virtual Art Camp: A weekly event to connect learners

Response to Virtual Arts Intensive was so positive that Santos and her team tweaked the program and schedule, and offered it again, this time with sessions running on Fridays only over four weeks, from April 3 to May 1. They presented new themes by which learners could explore art in new ways, delved into different media and techniques, and shared new sources of inspiration. Campers in kindergarten to grade 6 gathered on Friday mornings, while older learners connected and shared afternoon.

More than 110 learners participated. Two of these are Keifer and Killian, brothers who are SelfDesign learners. They say the camps let them work on art at home while still interacting with other learners who were participating from their own homes.

“We got to see my friends that are living in Langford and our cousin that is living in Nanaimo,” they say. “We got to show our artwork to each other.”

The two really liked experimenting with the art techniques introduced during the Friday sessions, with Killian enjoying the colour wheel work, which allowed him “to make up so many different colours. And I love making alphabet monsters.” For Keifer, “blowing watercolours with a straw, and learning to make different books” was a highlight. “I get to do art! And learned to explore different ways to make art.”

Santos and her team immediately offered Virtual Arts Camp again, from May 8–29, offering up an entirely new slate of content, themes, media and techniques for learners to explore, share and find inspiration together.

Quinn, a SelfDesign learner in grade 5, says she really liked being able to take part in the camp’s weekly virtual art sessions during the COVID-19 restrictions. “I learned so many ways of creating art, more than I thought there were. It really encouraged me to make art more often, because I found it super calming.”

And she says that, best of all, the camp helped her to connect with other learners, too. “The Virtual Arts camp really allowed me to see that there are other Selfdesign [learners] just like me,” she says. “I even met a friend, we connected through the Selfdesign Minecraft Server, which we play on together. We have countless things in common, we are the same age, and we get along great!”

Connecting and celebrating learners … even during COVID-19

SelfDesign has since applied the experience it gained from transitioning Arts Intensive to a virtual format to other SelfDesign events. Virtual Encounters took place May 25–28, and a Virtual Commencement celebration took place June 13 – showing that SelfDesign has the vision and know-how to keep learners connected and sharing even when it is navigating public health-driven restrictions on in-person gatherings.

Virtual Encounters included guest speakers, pod activities, youth input and hands-on learning – all tying into the themes of social justice,  connection to the land, and wellness. Learners participated in dance, movement and song workshop, yoga classes, and Indigenous studies. Daily conversation circles, story telling, reflection, and games ensured learners connected with each other.

Because of the greater flexibility that comes with the virtual format, SelfDesign added a second, concurrent camp for younger learners that hadn’t been possible in previous years. In addition, more presenters and facilitators could take part, extending the camp’s reach into both the SelfDesign community and the broader B.C. community.

Want to learn more about what makes SelfDesign’s kindergarten to grade 12 educational program unique? Download our Kindergarten to Grade 9 and our Grades 10-12 information packages to learn more.