When Dave Johnson, 22, first started going to Camp High Rocks, he was allowed to bring a Walkman with him. Campers could listen to music before bed, while doing chores or during rainy days. But as Walkmans gave way to iPods, which then became iPhones, camp rules became stricter.
In order to preserve camp traditions and keep kids engaged with one another, most sleepaway and day camps have set limits
on technology. Some ban it altogether, while others allow phones to be used on bus rides to and from camp, like at Camp Ramah Nyack in upstate New York. Kids who bring a phone to sleepaway camp typically have to give it to camp directors at the beginning of the session, and get it back when they leave.
“We stopped allowing any sort of electronic devices a few years ago because technology progressed to where any basic music player could also have games, video or Internet capabilities,” Johnson says. “All of these capabilities have the ability to really keep kids disengaged with each other in favor of being engaged in a 3-by-4 screen.”
These rules make summer camp — a rite of passage for many American kids — one of the few times kids will spend an extended period of time without technology. Whether it is for a week, six weeks or six hours out of the day, the time away aids children’s social skills and confidence, and helps define the camp experience, camp staff and parents say.
Making the Cut
At Camp High Rocks, an outdoor adventure camp on
Cedar Mountain in western North Carolina, campers can’t bring any form of technology: no phones, no Kindles, no computers or video games. Campers’ days are full of canoeing, hiking, playing sports and doing arts and crafts, with little time for phone
use anyhow. Many go back to back throughout grade school; every
summer there is a ceremony for 5th year and 10th year campers,
with dozens participating each time, counselor Katie Daniel says. Because of this, most campers are familiar with the policy, and there are rarely problems with kids trying to sneak in technology.
“I’ve never really heard anyone talk about it at all; most kids really enjoy being in the moment at camp,” Daniel says.
She says the technology policy plays a large role in building camp community.
“I 100 percent believe that the connections that you make with other staff members and kids at camp are so much deeper and quicker to be formed in the camp setting than in any other experience I’ve ever had,” Daniel says.
Meals are eaten without phones in hand or on the table, and going without becomes the norm, she adds. When staffers go out on nights off, they check their texts but, for the most part, keep their phones out of sight. “It’s cool that it transferred into the real world,” Daniel says. “It’s not common anymore to not have your phone be an option.”
At Camp Ilahee, a girls’ sleepaway camp in Brevard, North Carolina, camp director Laurie Strayhorn agrees that cutting out technology is key to maintaining a camp community. Building a community from scratch each year can be tough, with people coming from lots of different places and building new friendships, Strayhorn admits. But when kids are forced to engage in face-to-face conversations, they learn to think a little more about the effect of their words, and cliques or divisions are less likely to form.
“I think now, because there are so few places where kids can escape from technology, that it’s one of the huge assets that camp offers this generation,” Strayhorn said.
Hannah Smith, who has been a camp counselor at Quaker Lake Camp in Climax, North Carolina, for three years, says she loves to
be technology-free during the summer. The experience allows kids to learn more about themselves, she says, and learn about others in a more meaningful way.
“They really connect and get to know people rather than seeing what they have to offer through a profile,” Smith says. “I really like it, and I think it says a lot about kids who come back.”
A Temporary Empty Nest
While camp gives kids a chance to test their independence and experience life without social media, it also forces parents to give up the constant communication to which they are accustomed. Most sleepaway camps allow campers
to stay in touch with their families through snail mail. A common practice at sleepaway camps is to let campers mail letters home, and let parents send notes through the mail or via email. Staff members print out these emails and put them in campers’ mailboxes every day. Some parents send emails daily, others a few times a session, Camp High Rocks counselor Katie Daniel says, “It really just depends on the family.”
Smith says that at Quaker Lake Camp, they avoid letting campers talk to their parents on the phone unless it is an absolute emergency. “If a kid [experiencing homesickness] talks to a parent, that’s usually it, game over, they’re usually going to go home,” Smith said. “When they talk to them it only makes the homesickness worse, and they usually then don’t get over it.”
This separation can cause anxiety for some parents, especially those who are used to knowing where their kids are at all times. Lise-Marie Wertanzl, a mother of two from South Florida, says she gets especially worried when her son attends wilderness camp with the Boy Scouts every summer.
“It’s not easy for the parents, especially when they’re actually camping out in the wilderness,” Wertanzl says. “It’s a little disconcerting – you wonder if someone got bit by a snake or if anything has happened.”
But, Wertanzl says despite her worries, she thinks it is great for her son to take time off from his phone and video games. Her daughter attends debate camp each summer, and during the day, she is not allowed to use her phone either.
“I think I’d go crazy without my phone,” Wertanzl laughs. “But I think it’s good for them to take a break from it once in a while.”
Jason Eder, a father from North Carolina, says he doesn’t mind
his kids using technology at day camps they attend, as long as it doesn’t become the main focus. His youngest son attends a jiu- jitsu summer camp, and campers can bring tablets to use during free time. “For daycare folks [tablets] can be a godsend, so I get it to that extent,” Eder says. “If there was a camp that was leaning on it too much, I would have a problem with that.”
He compares occasional technology time nowadays to watching a movie at camp, something he did when he attended camp as a kid, and says his son’s elementary school even allows tablets to be used at school. While Eder’s son hasn’t gone to a camp with no-technology rules, Eder says he would be OK sending him to one in the future. “He might not be as OK with it, but I would support the effort,” Eder says. “He might complain about it a little, but I think he would be OK.”
Sometimes, the break in communication can cause parents’ fears to get the best of them. Lynn Wygant, whose three kids all have been to sleepaway camp, and whose eldest returned as a counselor, found herself being the “worst nightmare parent” the first summer her kids went away to camp. Her youngest son, Jack, had been experiencing bad migraines before leaving, and when she got a call from camp saying he was fine but in the infirmary, she panicked.
Wygant and her husband, not able to talk to their elementary school-age son, per camp policy, decided to check things out for themselves. Already planning to take their boat out into the San Juan Islands near their hometown in Washington, they decided to go to Orcas Island, where Camp Orkila is located. Knowing where he might be, the Wygants anchored their boat, binoculars in hand. “We could see him sitting in the health hut looking kind of pathetic, so we went up and checked to see if he was OK,” Wygant said. “Of course he was fine, he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, get out of here!’”
“If he wasn’t sick we wouldn’t have gone to those lengths; I think we would have trusted that everything would be OK. But since he was away for the first time, it was a concern that we couldn’t be there for him.”
Despite this worrisome first experience, Wygant says her kids all loved Camp Orkila. She is a huge proponent of taking a break from technology, as her kids did while at camp.
“I think it’s vital; I think it’s critical for their development,” Wygant said. “I wish it was mandatory more than once a summer. I think there should be a lot of time where kids get together without phones or computers and look at each other and engage in the moment without the constant distraction of checking their phones to see what other people are doing.”
The idea behind the rule is to move away from immediate gratification with constant communication, and to develop deeper relationships than kids are used to, Strayhorn says. At night, Camp Ilahee girls have “hang-out time,” and often counselors will introduce a topic of conversation. Usually, it starts out awkwardly, Strayhorn says. The girls aren’t used to not having something to look at, and have to adjust to reading people’s facial expressions and really listening to what the others have to say. After the first few days, they adapt, Strayhorn says, and usually wind up saying they love it.
“It gives them a break from trying to project a certain image on Instagram or Twitter, and then come home with almost a reset button.”
Wygant says her elder daughter came back from camp a different person; known as the “quiet, smart girl” at her small grade school, she was able to break out of her shell at camp. “It was a real defining moment for her; she could be the truest version of herself.”
Wygant’s younger daughter realized how lucky she was to
have such a great family during nightly “values sessions,” where counselors and campers would talk, similar to at Ilahee. Hearing other campers share stories about family and personal problems made her realize how good she
had it. “I think for her there was a realization that she was a lucky kid and a lot of her peers weren’t as lucky,” Wygant says.
Conversations like those are hard to have when phones can be used as a crutch, allowing kids to disengage from challenging topics. As technology continues to expand into every corner of our lives, camp remains one of the last true technology-free zones for kids.
Despite the difficulties that can arise for both parents and kids when faced with this sudden change in communication, getting away for a few weeks offers campers and camp staff a time
to grow and develop close bonds, without the distractions social media, texting and Internet access can bring.