TechnoTrends: Cellphones, Blackberries…What's Not To Like?

TechnoTrends

by Andrew Ackerman

I suppose it was inevitable. In a society that increasingly prides itself
as being always accessible — always "plugged in" —
it was only a matter of time before campers started showing up at camp
with cellphones and wireless e-mail devices (e.g., Blackberries). Is this
really such a bad thing?

Actually, it is a problem on a number of levels:

  • Child development Camp is a place
    where children gain independence and learn to stand on their own. A
    lifeline back to home can easily become a crutch.
  • Breakage Let's face it, things break
    at camp. Camp by its very nature is a rough environment, and these are
    electronic devices that can cost several hundred dollars. Even if a
    parent understands that this is no fault of camp, there's still a lingering
    unhappiness.
  • Homesickness Even the happiest camper
    has a down moment. Says Scott Fiedler of Brookwood Camps in New York,
    "So the kid has a bad day — twenty minutes later he's out
    playing ball — having fun. But if he has a cellphone, it's 'mommy
    take me home!' Now I have to spend an hour on the phone calming the
    mother down and convincing her not to take her son out of camp."

The good news is that most parents will understand all of this. But
you can't "just say no." The expectation of instant access is
still there, and if you don't find a way to address the underlying desire
in a way that is compatible with camp, they'll keep trying to smuggle
in those cellphones and blackberries. Fortunately, there are ways.

As camp consultant Bob Ditter, M.Ed., L.C.S.W., puts it, "Saying,
'well, we can't do that, but how about this?' is a way to move forward
while maintaining your mission or values — yet giving parents something
they can feel good about."

So what do parents really want to know? When all is said and done, parents
want to know that their child is having fun. So why not just show them?

Bob Ditter often recommends that camps use online photos to show parents
that their child is safe and having a good time. According to Bob, "A
photo or video gallery can be a one way window into camp."

Photo/Video Gallery

Posting camper pictures is a great way to reassure parents without intruding
on the camper's experience. Every parent who sees his or her son smiling
by the waterfront or daughter enjoying archery is one less nervous parent
phone call you have to field. Director Audrey Monke of Gold Arrow Camp
in California uses online photography to share experiences with parents.
"We're receiving lots of positive comments from our parents about
the pictures."

Some camps like Camp Chi in Wisconsin have taken this a step further
by posting video footage on their Web site. Online video is more work
for the camp and requires more advanced technology, but there's no better
way to make a parent truly experience your camp. Director Brad Finkel
says, "Our video gallery definitely decreases the communication gap.
Video really gives parents a chance to see their kids in action. Parents
love it."

TIP For your campers' safety and privacy,
camper pictures posted online should always be password protected.

Communication from Parents

An online photo or video gallery is only half the answer. These let
you get information from camp to the outside world, but what about the
other direction? How do you provide parents with a way to communicate
from the outside into camp — to communicate with their children
— without falling into any of the traps we discussed?

The simplest way is still the humble letter — but it lacks two
features that are increasingly important in today's "wired"
world:

  1. Speed
  2. Convenience

In general, a parent is lucky if a letter she mails today reaches her
child at camp three days later. If your camp is particularly remote, mail
can take five or more days. Sometimes this is just an inconvenience. For
others, it can be much more. Numerous camps with one-week sessions have
told us that regular mail is just not an option for them. The mail just
does not get to camp in time to matter.

Furthermore, your parents have gotten used to the ease, speed, and convenience
of e-mail. There are some parents who are lucky to find five minutes to
spare in the middle of the day to simply type a letter — forget
about a hand-written note. For them, the mere thought of finding a stamp,
addressing a letter, and dropping it in a mailbox is challenging.

Giving campers e-mail access is not a solution. Few parents want their
campers to be sitting in front of a computer reading e-mail. So, camps
are increasingly being forced into accepting e-mail that they then print
and hand out at mail call. This solution is far from ideal. Camps find
themselves deluged with e-mail that they have to individually print, manually
sort (and how do you route an e-mail from "Mom" to "David?"),
and distribute. Add in 2 MB photo attachments of Fluffy the cat, unsolicited
e-mail ("spam"), and various viruses — and pretty soon
you need a staff person dedicated to incoming e-mail.

Fortunately, there are a number of one-way camper e-mail solutions.
While details vary, these services are generally password protected, pre-sort
the incoming e-mail for you, and often give you the option of charging
parents per e-mail so you can recoup the cost of paper and toner. So now
you can give the parent the speed and convenience of e-mail without the
downside.

And when you combine pictures with (one way) parent to camper e-mail,
the affect is especially potent. Imagine this — A parent logs onto
your (password protected) photo gallery. She finds a great picture of
her beaming daughter who has just won her leg of the Color War relay race.
She immediately attaches that very picture to an e-mail to her daughter
with her congratulations, and her daughter has that note and picture in
her hands the next morning. What could be more effective than that?

The Future Is Available Now

Before you object that this is a techno-fantasy, you can do everything
I just described above at no cost to camp — with no programming
required. For instance, there is a service that lets parents send one
way e-mail from any computer with Internet access to camp. Parents can
attach pictures or personalize the note with a decorative border. The
camp receives a single e-mail the next morning containing the ten, twenty,
or 100+ camper e-mails sent the night before, presorted by cabin and camper.

The bottom line is that you can meet the expectations of the Communications
Age without surrendering control of the camp experience or conceding totally
to the wishes of parents — but only if you satisfy your parents'
underlying needs some other way. There are simple, cost-effective ways
to provide the communication parents require.

And remember, a happy parent won't try hiding a cellphone in a can of
his child's tennis balls!

Andrew Ackerman is the chief operations officer of Bunk1.com.
Bunk1 provides camps with password protected Photo Galleries, Video Galleries,
and Bunk Notes (one way e-mail), as well as full Web sites and staffing
services. For more information, please contact owners@Bunk1.com
or call 1-888-465-CAMP.

 

Originally published in the 2004 July/August
issue of Camping Magazine.

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