ExperienceCraft:
Meeting Grieving Kids Where They Are

by Jenna Abrams and Colin Angevine

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“We know camp well, we get grief. We understand how to serve grieving kiddos leading with play first.”

–  Josh Landay, COO of Experience Camps

Six million children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they turn 18. Grief is a heavy burden for anyone to bear; it is all the more challenging for children.

Where can these kids turn for support and community? Who can understand them and their experience? How can they find outlets from their grief to just be kids?

ExperienceCraft, a joint initiative of Experience Camps and Connected Camps, hosts a supportive virtual community to do just that. Using specially designed and moderated tech platforms, grieving kids come together online for connection and play in a space where they know “everyone here gets it.”

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

ExperienceCraft is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that ExperienceCraft supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

In this case study, we look at how ExperienceCraft is making opportunities for youth to build relationships, create with one another, and share their experiences with others who understand their grieving.

History and Context

A garden in an ExperienceCraft Minecraft world.

ExperienceCraft is a collaboration between the non profit organizations Experience Camps and Connected Camps. Experience Camps leads national, no-cost programs for grieving children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver; and Connected Camps provides online connected learning experiences that encourage creativity, play, problem solving, collaboration, and interest-driven learning. Their joint initiative, ExperienceCraft, is an online community designed for young people experiencing grief, hosted on a Connected Camps’ moderated Discord and Minecraft server. Young people ages 9-16 can log in to ExperienceCraft virtually, either from home or from a computer lab at an after-school program, at designated hours each week, all year long. The initiative has two advisory boards — one of clinicians and another of youth leaders — to help design and facilitate the online community in ways that are safe, developmentally appropriate, sensitive to the needs of grieving youth, and also fun.

ExperienceCraft launched its first pilot program in the summer of 2022, but the two founding organizations have a much longer history. Experience Camps started in the summer of 2009 as a one-week in-person camp for grieving youth. That first summer, Experience Camps served 27 campers in Maine. By the summer of 2023, Experience Camps was serving 1200 campers across 13 different programs at seven locations. “We think it’s great,” said Josh Landay, COO of Experience Camps, but he acknowledged, “Not every kiddo wants to go to camp. Not every caregiver wants to send their kid away to camp for a week, recognizing the trauma that many of them have already been through. So we said: how else can we meet grieving kids where they are?” 

Enter Connected Camps. In operation since 2016, Connected Camps runs online programs for young people to design, create, play, and code together in small group settings. Experience Camps saw their complementary strengths and reached out to explore a partnership. Experience Camps would bring their expertise on kids and grief, and Connected Camps would bring their expertise in designing and moderating safe, engaging online spaces for youth.

We think it’s great. Not every kiddo wants to go to camp. Not every caregiver wants to send their kid away to camp for a week, recognizing the trauma that many of them have already been through. So we said: how else can we meet grieving kids where they are?

– Josh Landay, COO of Experience Camps

The online community that was conceived out of that collaboration, ExperienceCraft, initially ran as a one-week pilot. Young people who were summertime campers at Experience Camps were invited to join a secure Discord server where they could join text and audio chats with other campers. From the Discord server, kids could then access a private Minecraft server, where they could continue building their relationships while also engaging in a “grief-aware” virtual world together. Both the Minecraft and Discord servers were custom-designed and moderated in realtime by Connected Camps staff and Experience Camps volunteers. 

The goal of the pilot was to bring together the power of online platforms and games to support youth who may feel isolated in their grief by connecting them with other grieving youth across the county. It was a resounding success. Katie Salen Tekinbaș, co-founder and Chief Designer of Connected Camps, describes how the grieving youth are able to find a “balance … of joy. Deep joy of these young people being together, building things that are meaningful to them, having conversations, building resources to share with other kids in the community.” 

ExperienceCraft reopened for year-round play soon after the pilot finished, and has been running ever since. The partnership continues to evolve, testing out new strategies for engaging youth in their grief journeys, while also creating opportunities for connection, community, and play.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

Campers gather around a virtual campfire.

When young people join ExperienceCraft, they have lots of options for how to engage with the community. Some of the programming in ExperienceCraft is structured: an hour-long “build battle” that challenges kids to create contraptions in Minecraft or chatting in Discord while watching a movie with friends and counselors. Other times, players engage in ways that are unstructured. There’s an open channel on Discord for spontaneous conversation, and free time in Minecraft to roast s’mores around a virtual campfire. This kind of freedom and flexibility is by design. ExperienceCraft deliberately provides a range of opportunities for young people experiencing grief to connect with each other, express themselves, and just have fun.

The following vignettes share more about ExperienceCraft through small moments — the reconstruction of a virtual village, a connection of “instant friendship,” a visit to the Memorial Garden — and use these stories to illustrate the promise of the connected wellbeing approach.

A recent camper's build during the winter Gamefest in 2023, representing a decorated grave site of his person.

Rebuilding a virtual village

If you haven’t played – Minecraft captures players’ imaginations by allowing them to explore and build new creations in an expansive virtual world. In Minecraft, if you can imagine it, you can build it.

The ExperienceCraft Minecraft server is no exception. Players innovate: they create their own activities, run with their own ideas, and spontaneously lead collaborative activities without the prompting of the staff or moderators. 

During a recent 5-day “GameFest” event hosted by ExperienceCraft, one player led a group of others to an abandoned village in the Minecraft world, where they decided to settle and rebuild the village as a group. The activity — entirely conceived, led, and developed by the youth on their own — became the centerpiece of GameFest for many players. When they came to the server to play, they went straight to the village to help rebuild it. Matthew Kreutter, Product Manager at Connected Camps,  explains that the idea to rebuild a village “wasn’t something created by a moderator. It wasn’t like a moderator said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go build a village now together.’ The space really is reflective of what [the players] want and need in the moment.” Rebuilding the village gave the players a shared sense of purpose and accomplishment, a unique way to express themselves, and a deeper bond to each other.

Research Background: Sponsoring youth interests

This vignette exemplifies how ExperienceCraft “sponsors,” or offers adult support for youth interests–a core design principle of connected learning.  Games are one of the most popular interests for young people. A recent survey by Electronic Software Association (ESA) found that 76% of youth (under 18 years) play video games with more than 80% that play multiplayer games to broaden their social network.  Research shows that well-designed multiplayer video games and digital play-based environments can offer valuable affinity spaces for youth to develop social connections.  Research has documented the positive outcomes when youth have opportunities to explore their identity and social connections within affinity networks, when driven by shared interests and a sense of shared purpose.

Morgan Buyse, a counselor and lead developer for the initial launch of Experience Craft, created this build during the pilot week of Experience Craft in the summer of 2022. A close friend of Morgan’s significant other died in the month leading up to the pilot week, which created a special bond between Morgan and this project. About halfway through the pilot week, Morgan decided to head to the Memorial Garden and start building something in memory of her friend that had passed away, prompting a few of the campers to join her, ask about her build, and start memorial builds of their own.

This was one camper's build during the pilot week in the summer of 2022, representing a fond memory he had of fishing with his father.

‘Instant friendship’ in a virtual space

The potential for feelings of isolation in youth can be strong – when you add in the overwhelming experience of processing grief, the potential to feel alone is even more powerful. Experience Camps’ in-person grief programs provide a site for developing close and meaningful connections by giving grieving kids a community of others who know what they’re going through. But how does that translate to an online setting?

Josh Landay of Experience Camps tells a story of one player who logged into the chat for the first time on the Discord server and typed into the chat: “Where do I go? What do I do? Hello? Anybody help me? Hello?” Immediately, the player was flooded with responses to their questions and invitations from the others on the server. “Come over here to the creative world and do this activity!” “Come over here and play these games with us!” It was, Josh says, the same kind of instant community, friendship, and feelings of support that he has seen when kids walk off the bus on the first day of summer camp. “They’re saying, “Do this. Come follow us. We’ll show you how to do it,” Josh recalls. The kid who had initially asked for help typed back into the chat – “FRIENDS!!!”

Research Background: Positive youth development

ExperienceCraft embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving  youth opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice. 

“To show up nervous and afraid and not sure what to do, and then just be met by people who are enthusiastic and supportive and who get it – that instant friendship is huge,” Josh says. “We’re saying to these kids, come as you are. Be authentic. Be a hundred percent you. It’s okay to be a grieving young person in this space, because you’re gonna be with other kids who get it.”

This is the new Memorial Garden area, with 8 builds from the winter Gamefest in 2023. This area also incorporated a campfire where campers ended each day with some reflection. 

Building and sharing in the Memorial Garden

The Memorial Garden is an area of the Minecraft server designed to be a space where kids can build anything they want in memory of their loved one who has died. The Garden was one of many elements that ExperienceCraft’s design team was uncertain about at first: would youth actually engage in building something about their person? Would they want to share those builds with others or keep them private? What kind of scaffolding or incentives might motivate building and sharing in the space?

Matthew Kreutter of Connected Camps explained the phenomenon he witnessed over the course of the first week: “What we saw was what I think we were hoping for: that kids would naturally, over time, feel comfortable and want to do this of their own volition. They didn’t need a moderator to prompt them. They didn’t need someone to say, ‘Hey, you have to build a memorial.’” Instead, youth independently chose when and how to incorporate their loved one into the course of their gameplay. By the middle of the week, the Memorial Garden was starting to become populated with new creations. One player recreated a moment from a fishing trip with their dad; another created an entire dining room populated by their family members eating dinner together. Whether big or small, each build captured a powerful memory brought to life through the love and creativity of a young person on the server.

Research Background: Diversifying opportunities to honor loved ones and express grief

Holding space for deceased loved ones is said to help those surviving lean into “those relationships as a source of strength.” This vignette illustrates diverse ways in which youth can express their grief on the ExperienceCraft server. In addition to sharing and talking about their persons, youth can build in the memorial garden to honor their persons. By inviting youth to express their grief journeys, if they want to, in a  number of different ways, ExperienceCraft amplifies youth voices. ExperienceCraft reflects an asset-based approach for fostering social connections and a sense of community among youth by responsively eliminating barriers (e.g. no one wants to talk about grief) that otherwise make grieving youth feel isolated. 

The Memorial Garden acts as a space where youth can engage meaningfully with their grief on their own terms. It is also a space where they can form connections with others who understand their feelings through sharing or collaboration. Kids may enlist others to help in building projects and bond with each other by sharing their stories. 

Conclusion

One camper’s build during the pilot week in the summer of 2022, representing a fond memory she had of her grandmother taking her to Disneyland.

ExperienceCraft continues to expand its recruitment, to reach more kids in more places. New partnerships are making this possible: for example, Boys and Girls Clubs in places around the country that want to provide specialized support for grieving kids but don’t have in-house expertise, programs in remote areas that seek virtual resources to support grieving youth, and organizations that specialize in grief but are seeking more online programs, like Good Grief or the Center for Grieving Children in Wisconsin. “Something that’s good for some of us,” Josh Landay says, “is going to be great for all of us.”

ExperienceCraft’s creators and facilitators hope kids will come away from their experiences in the server’s programs with a better understanding of their grief, and feeling better able and perhaps more willing to talk about it – and importantly, Josh says, to feel “less of a sense of loneliness. To say that they have a higher hope that they will live a positive and productive life. And to say that they had fun!”

This case study was produced in partnership with Experience Camps and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.