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Where Swimming & Sports Take a Back Seat...This Summer Camp's About Building Stuff

Courtesy of Emily Wilson/Beam Center

Deep in the woods of Strafford, New Hampshire, kids are playing with power tools. They’re climbing on jagged structures, and learning to weld from adults dotted with fresh tattoos.

Don’t sweat it: it’s just another summer at Beam Camp, a makerspace for youth in the outdoors .

(Editor’s note: we recommend listening to this story)

You ever come across something in the woods that doesn’t quite make sense? Like a rusting-out old Buick or something?

Well, walk around the 101 acres of Beam Camp in Strafford, and you may just find a 30-foot tall steel kaleidoscope. Or, in another clearing, huge wooden swings connected to chimes.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
A project from the recent past: giant wood swings, connected to chimes.

Each summer, the kids who attend Beam Camp go big and they go weird. Campers, who range in age from 10-17, team up to build large scale interactive projects, which are designed by professional architects and engineers. They hammer, they weld, they make, and then they leave the project behind.

While that may sound like a pretty great summer, Oliver didn’t arrive with high expectations.

“This is like a small camp where you just make things,” he initially thought. “But then when I came here, I was like oh my gosh, there’s like so much cool tools. And we’re making so much big projects, and it’s super fun.”

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Danny Kahn shows off a giant metal flip book, one of last year's projects at Beam Camp.

Super fun, but not just fun.

“We are not trying to duplicate school,” says Danny Kahn, who helped create Beam Camp, along with Brian Cohen, in 2005. “This is a period of the year where people and these campers have an opportunity to get away from school. No one ever has to get away from learning.”

He says carrying out an ambitious construction project, while also mixing in normal sleepaway camp activities such as swimming and games, create a new kind of learning experience.

During this summer’s first of two three-week sessions, campers teamed up on a wild-looking project called the ‘Kinetic Cluster,’ designed by Fruzsina Karig and Kate McAleer.

“We’re making, like, a 3D dome,” explains Daniel, a camper from New York City.

The Kinetic Cluster consists of a raised platform with a retractable dome roof. On its perimeter, 15 seats that, when occupied, trigger a gear system that rolls back the dome, revealing the sky.

Waves of campers rotate building different parts of the Cluster. Part of the learning process at Beam Camp is figuring out how to pull off this kind of massive, intricate project as a unit.

“Yeah, it’s hard to work with people,” says Charlotte, from upstate New York. “You just always have to give them your honest opinion about stuff.”

Well said, kid. But other campers find the process inspiring.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

“I feel like I’m a different person when I get out of camp. In my school, there is a lot of drama, you know,” says Alila, from Princeton, NJ. “But at Beam, I sort of forget about it. And don’t really care. I feel like more of an enthusiastic person.”

Many of the campers are from New York City, where Beam also operates as a year round non-profit, called the Beam Center. While the sticker price for each session is $5,700, most kids receive some level of financial assistance.

When summer is over, Danny Kahn says some campers will go home and continue making. Others, though, won’t pick up a tool or sketch an idea out a big idea until next year. And that’s okay.

“We use it as a vehicle for youth development,” says Kahn. “I don’t think that many people are going to become master carpenters, furniture makers, builders. Maybe? Mabye. But it’s not the intention. Our purpose is what’s behind it for a young person.”

Credit Courtesy of Beam Center
The completed Kinetic Cluster, pictured at night.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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