Cultivating Camp’s Tech-free Traditions in the Digital Age

Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD
Photo courtesy of Appel Farm Arts Camp, Elmer, New Jersey.

The camp director of one of the oldest and most respected camps on the continent remembers how, a few years ago, his camp's continuing tradition as a tech-free environment was especially hard for some fourteen- and fifteen-year-old campers. Cell phones, texting, and social media were the personal default setting of their lives. "We had some kids who really missed it," he told me recently. The networked life was the only life they knew at home and school. Going tech-free was a culture shock for them. Today, he says, the same-aged campers "express a huge sigh of relief to be getting away from the phone and Facebook®."

Never before have there been such compelling reasons to send a child to summer camp, as we all adjust to life in the digital age. Very few places are left on the planet today where you can see 150 kids happily walking, talking, giggling, and singing together, where they're fully engaged, fully present to each other, arms linked, with nobody looking down to check a phone. Where else can you see groups of children laughing with each other over the story they're telling and not the YouTube® videos they're watching? The tech-free, unmediated moment is so rare in children's lives today. They hardly know what it's like to be around grownups, young adults, and peers when nobody puts a conversation on hold to take a call on their cell phone, or "just check" for texts or e-mail. These mini-moments of disconnect have become an accepted part of relationships, but not a helpful one.

Summer camp has always been a great way to get kids out in nature, unplugged from TV, and immersed in a culture full of healthy values of competition, community, camaraderie, cooperation, and collaboration. Camp has always been a safe place for children to grow, to explore, and to take risks knowing that no teachers or parents will be evaluating them, watching, or hovering over them. For many kids, camp has been their first experience of a meaningful connection with nature, whether in a canoe, hiking a trail, or sleeping under the stars. For generations, camp has been the place for kids to develop independence and confidence away from home and parents, and to develop the kinds of social and emotional tools in the camp setting that are essential for success in the wider world. Camp brings out the best in us, helps us connect with who we are deep down, and teaches us to be our best selves.

Camp today may be the only place in children's lives where they are free to experience themselves fully present and engaged in activities and in moments where technology is utterly irrelevant. Even as some camps allow campers more access to digital technology, the effort to protect and cultivate children's tech-free experience is increasingly important — and challenging — for camps and counselors.

The Unmediated Moment Is a Powerful Growing Space for Every Child

Consider the profound impact that even a few weeks of camp has on a child's life. The active ingredients of this alchemical magic can be difficult to nail down, but certainly the deep immersion, the continuous flow of camp time and camp culture creates a cherished counterpoint to the busy, stressful, pressure-filled school year. No virtual experience compares to the thrilling sense of achievement of waterskiing, crossing the wake confidently when only the week before you couldn't get upright on the skis. Nothing matches the sense of mastery that comes from a three-day or three-week wilderness canoeing trip and a child's experience of her own growth: endurance, grit, resilience.

Camp friendships are legendary for a reason. When you are living in a bunk with eight to twelve other people for four to six weeks, especially year after year, you learn how to be a friend in a way that is less easily learned at school, despite schools' efforts to help children understand the meaning of friendship. You learn to deal with conflict, with teasing, how to make up, make amends. You learn how to care about somebody you might not even really like all that much, but you care about them because that's what it means to be a decent, kind, respectful citizen, and that's a big part of camp culture: You have to work through things. Unlike in school, it's not a teacher's job to monitor social interactions and fix every situation. There is no going home at 3 p.m. and, for older kids, there is no going on Ask.fm to dish.

Where else in a child's busy life with busy parents is it possible to find a caring coach who works one-on-one with you to develop strong social skills and the deeper values that shape relationships? The job of counselor is really to focus, to help children develop the basic yet complex relationship skills that often get short shrift in the mediated, networked lives kids live online and in social media. Counselors are devoted to this mentoring, as well as to their role as teacher and coach, helping campers learn athletic, artistic, and other skills.

Perhaps the deepest impact that camp has on a child is this opportunity to make lifelong friends and experience themselves in a different world, to separate from their past and their everyday environment as they step into a much larger community of kids. In this culture they connect across age, grade, or school divisions.

In this way, camp is a counterculture of the best kind. Camp culture counters the materialistic, crass, teasing, consumer- based, competitive, snarky cultures that dominate school life, mainstream culture, and social media. When I interview kids about camp, they talk about the unbelievable freedom and joy of being away from smartphones, Instagram®, and Snapchat®. They feel their inner goofiness, spontaneity, and humor emerge while walking down the bunk line with none of the self-checking that so often happens outside of camp when the selfie craze—let's take a picture—takes hold. They talk about how wonderful it is to be free of the urge to check Instagram or Facebook. It takes a day or two to get over the tech cravings, to go through texting withdrawal and move from smartphone separation anxiety to an exhilarating experience of freedom, but they do it. And they love it.

Older campers talk about how they're more fully present to all of their emotions, even the disappointment and jealousy that can erupt when, for example, you're passed over for team captain. They talk about how at camp you have the peace and quiet and the right people around you to help you work through whatever's bothering you. "At home if I was mad at my friend I'd go online and start some drama, even though I know I shouldn't. Or I'd be texting nastygrams," a fifteen-year-old camper told me. "There's no place for that kind of stuff here at camp — here we deal directly and honestly. It's a relief." Kids talk about how at home they go online because they feel anxious about missing out, and how nice it is to be at camp where you don't have to deal with any of it at all.

Camp counselors also talk about how hard it is at first to break the habit of checking e-mail all day long, to cooperate with the camp expectation that they do not ever pull out their smartphone in front of campers. But once they, too, get through the withdrawal, they feel exhilarated to be released from the siren call of everybody and everything, the entire world screaming, "Check in! Just check in, just check!" They talk about how relaxing, joyful, and liberating it is to have a job that requires them to be fully present, love where and who you are, bring your best self to this moment, and focus on who is with you and what's surrounding you. For campers and counselors alike, being present this way heightens people's attention, focus, and creativity — all the things we know that technology and multitasking can dilute.

Finally, at camp, kids learn how to be alone, at peace, not just independent from their parents. They learn to relate and rely on themselves intra-psychically — within themselves — and that is such an essential relationship for children to develop. The ability to be by yourself and not feel alone or bored, but to feel content, fine, okay walking down the bunk line by yourself, or walking down the path to jewelry or canoeing. All of those moments during the day where children are walking without fear, without any interruptions — no texting — they are able to hear their own inner thoughts. Or maybe just listen to the birds or the water on the lake getting more and more distant. It's an embodied experience of yourself and your surroundings without disconnecting to experience the moment as a text or a post mediated through technology. That's increasingly hard to come by today, and it's an important capacity that we want our kids to develop.

This isn't a matter of nostalgia for iconic, old-fashioned ways. Tech has affected our kids in ways that go deeply to their capacity for learning and for living an active, engaged life. The consequences show up clearly in the camp setting, and they are red flags for children's healthy overall development that deserve our attention because they can undermine some of the most time-honored aspects of the camp experience. Two of the most common concerns that tech affects: anxiety and autonomy.

Kids often report feeling more anxious when they're alone. They don't know how to be alone and feel good or even okay. We want our children to learn that they can rely on themselves. We want our children to understand that when they're packing to go, we know they're "packing us" with them in the sense of carrying our love and encouragement with them. They don't need to know what would mommy think, what would daddy say? They have the values we have embraced with them in our families and one-on-one relationships. Now they need to have the freedom and space to develop their own. Constant photo opps and video clips for camp websites also detract from the camp experience for campers. When the boundaries between home and camp disappear, the sense of independence and autonomy — the "free to be you and me" without the parents, and "look I'm fine and strong and confident all on my own" — is diluted. When kids know their parents are watching them, even if it's online from a distance, they feel the gaze irl (in real life), and they sense when the photographer or videographer is there.

As wonderful as smartphones, social media, and online sites are, they encourage a kind of dependency between parents and children that undermines so many of the very processes that camp offers. When children can text their parents throughout the day, though the causal contact can seem totally benign, the ease of it can turn to habit, and habit can lead to over-texting and asking too many unnecessary questions. In fact, kids begin to assume that it's easier to ask their parents a question and wait for the answer than to ask and answer it for themselves. The experience of leaving home, going to camp, and learning how to answer those questions — learning how to depend on a peer or a counselor rather than always a parent — is so important to build children's confidence, self-reliance, and the sense of power and efficacy that comes from the achievement of going away from home for several weeks and not just being fine, but thriving.

The core traits for life success, identified more than a decade ago by psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of the field of Positive Psychology, include grit (or a sturdy perseverance), self-control, optimism, zest, curiosity, social and emotional intelligence, gratitude, joy, and resilience. Camp is the best place to develop these — especially when unplugged! Without doubt one of the best ways to develop grit, self-control, resilience, optimism, joy, and gratitude is to have a camp emersion experience with all its ups and downs (including homesickness, big disappointments, heartache, and hurt feelings). When we flunk the American Red Cross advanced swimmers test on the breast stroke, we learn about grit and resilience when we try harder to pass it the next time.

I'm Biased: a Camper's Confession

I've been a camper for most of my life. I started going when I was five years old and over the years have been a camper and counselor, and am now a consulting psychologist to camps. Homesick at the beginning of my first eight-week summer, I soon learned that I could not only survive but thrive in this new world. I became the camper who cried at summer's end when it was time to go home. Within those summer weeks I had the most significant formative experiences of my childhood; I came to know myself as a lifelong friend to others with a kind of free-spirited self-acceptance and comfort with my body and who I was. I was in a spiritual communion with nature. Camp was the safest place to learn leadership skills that would serve me throughout my life — to stand by a friend, to stand up for my beliefs, to stand with others in awe, to stand against unkindness or injustice, and not be afraid of how others would judge me. I learned the practice of cleaning up litter on the trail, and in our relationships, the art and craft of personal accountability and responsibility. I stand with the multitudes of adults all over the world who were once campers and will say to this day that some of their best childhood memories, longest friendships, and deepest influences came from camp.

Over the past fifteen years, I've worked as a consulting psychologist to summer camps. I train staff and serve as an oncall advisor for camps when psychological issues come up that require further attention. In the past few years we have all seen a trend of technological seepage into camp from the digital culture. It is no surprise that tech would become a part of camp. But we've reached a point where we need to push pause and think: Are we using technology in the best ways to strengthen and protect the essential camping experience? In the same way we want to protect childhood, we want to protect the camping experience.

Best Wisdom from Best Practices

Many camp directors and staff tell me that they want to resist the pressure to "go tech" or to ease restrictions they have on allowable tech use, but they struggle in the constant onslaught of new devices and new pressures to accommodate them. Rather than feel ever on the defense, digging in against the pressure to power-up, in my work with camps — as in my work with schools — we push the refresh button with regard to how they may have quickly adapted to tech and can now revisit those decisions with experience and newer research to guide them.

For example, some schools revisit policies allowing cell phones in the halls and pathways and reestablish that pathways and halls are cell free. Why? Because they learned from experience that with cell phone use no one was making eye contact anymore, saying hello, or even sending the subtle emotional smoke signals that ignoring someone used to convey. As new apps and devices enter rapidly, it's important to repeatedly reevaluate how we feel, how we connect, what we gain, and what is lost with each new iteration. It's never too late to hit pause, refresh, and reboot with a different program.

In a similar way, some camps are also hitting the reboot key with regard to posting daily photos and videos on the camp website. Directors feel pressure from parents to hire camp photographers who methodically roam camp to be sure to get a "happy camper" photo of every camper on a rotating schedule. Campers feel the ever-watchful eye of the camera, and in a sense, the ever watchful eye of their parents who scour the camp's website for posts of their own kids and complain if they are absent or don't look happy enough. Further, campers get upset when sacred camp rituals appear on YouTube, or embarrassed when a photo captures them in what they feel is a less than post-worthy picture.

This new dynamic of camps posting daily photos of campers has broken down the healthy experience of distance and separation between parents and children that camp offers. The online photo updates can set parents to anxiously checking the camp web page, and ultimately undermine parents learning to separate from their children! Part of the wonderful experience of camp for kids is to have experiences out of sight of their parents, and to relay those experiences to parents (or not) through telling their own story or showing their own photos, without their parents having vicariously seen it all on the camp web page. Parents, directors, counselors, and campers all need to revisit the question: What do we want the camp experience to be in the digital age? These tools are great, but is it really what we want camp in the digital age to look like? Let's not turn camp into a reality show, worry about Google® ratings, and likes.

Every camp has its own mission and its own way of distinguishing the camp experience for campers. However, successful strategies for cultivating core camp values in the digital age preserve the camp mission and the irreplaceable camp experience and camp values for campers. From the many variations on a theme, I offer these three sound principles to guide conversations about policy and practices:

  • Nurture the nature experience.
    In its most basic element, camp is about getting back to nature, disconnecting from a lot of things — culture and gender images, celebrity culture, materialism and consumerism, and worrying about what you look like and what your grades are. The closer you can get to nature and the more fully present and engaged moments you can find, the further you get from those distracting and often anxiety-inducing constructs.
  • Go low-tech, high-touch, and keep tech on a tight rein.
    The freest and most spirited, cohesive camps create a tight container where tech is out of sight and out of mind. Staff has access during off hours, off the bunk line, nights off, days off, or in the counselors' shack. The glow of a screen from the top of a counselor's bunk bed during rest hour can be enough to highjack the remainder of rest hour for some campers. Instead of reading their books or doodling, they spend too much time begging to borrow their counselor's laptop.
  • Keep the connection between counselor and camper strong.
    Kids today talk about camp counselors as some of the most important people in their lives. They love that at camp you actually have uninterrupted conversations — counselors don't do the "wait a sec" to check messages or the sudden disconnect at the sound of a ping — no "just checking" and checking out. Camp is one of the few places left where the priority is one another, nurturing our community, l iving in community, and being ful ly present to one another — where we can learn the most about ourselves, our inner lives, how we relate to a wide range of others, what it feels like to belong unconditionally to a camp community, the art and practice of inclusion, and the value that there is enough love and goodwill for one and all. Don't let tech disrupt this by bringing in the outside world, dividing our focus, and diluting the power of being more than enough for each other.

Catherine Steiner-Adair is an international speaker and consultant creating thriving, connected cultures at home, work, school, and camp. Her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age and her leadership curriculum for girls, Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health, and Leadership are avai lable on her website: http://catherinesteineradair.com.

Photo courtesy of Appel Farm Arts Camp, Elmer, New Jersey.

Originally published in the 2014 September/October Camping Magazine.

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