When the recent "Great Recession" hit in 2008, it changed the attitudes and enrollment behaviors of many camps' clientele. But around that same time came another defining moment that has changed how parents think as well — the tipping point of technology in the hands of tweens. So while many camps experienced a decline in their youngest camper enrollments, at Liberty Lake Day Camp, and some other camps that offer relatively traditional camp programs for 11- to 13-year-olds, there has been a significant influx of new campers. Since 2009, my 12- to 13-year-old division has been the largest in camp — quite different from most of my colleagues' day camps, whose bell curves up at around second or third grade.
At Liberty Lake, 99 percent of our camp families have never experienced "camp" in a traditional sense, if any sense at all. The typical parent may have gone to a weekend of vacation bible school, but that's it. So convincing them to take the plunge for even a local day camp is a challenging task. With no initial idea as to the value of what camp offers, the knee-jerk reaction is, "Way too expensive!" Meanwhile, these same families are going to Disney World or other vacation spots once or twice a year. So it's not that they can't afford camp; it's that they don't feel the value of camp is worth the price tag. Many of the 60 million American children who don't attend camp each summer — many of them tweens — may fall into this category. Often, our message is just not registering as relevant to this giant pool of potential campers or their parents, which is a big problem. So, how do we capture camper and parent interest and get more tweens to unplug and experience the joys and life lessons camp has to offer?
The typical tween stares at a screen for 7.5 hours per day between school and home (Ahuja, 2013). While ten years ago, most high school kids had flip phones, today most middle school kids (and even older elementary school kids) have smartphones. Couple that with iPads, computers, televisions with 900 channels, and video games that jump out from the screen in Dolby Surround sound, and modern media probably has more influence on the lives of young people than parents do. And parents know it — they are just reluctant to mitigate it. They don't want the arguments, so they rarely make rules to moderate technology use; and when they do, they hardly ever uphold them.
So while parents may have been putting off the camp experience for a half dozen years because of their internal cost/benefit analysis, they see their 12-year-old daughter spending half her day on Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, etc., and their 11-year-old son playing violent video games like Call of Duty (my son's favorite) for hours on end like an addict. According to my son, on any given night literally 12 million people could be playing that specific game online worldwide. As a result of the new reality in the lives of tweens and teens, parents are yearning for their kids to be able to experience life the way they knew it as children — unplugged — without it feeling like punishment to their tech-riddled tweens and teens.
While kids young and old tend to share an interest in technology these days, middle schoolers often differ from other potential campers in some significant ways. First of all, they are skeptical. They think they know everything — and we know they have a lot left to learn — so we must appeal to some of their major desires:
- Being treated like a grown up, not a child
- Having the freedom to select activities and to move freely around the camp
- Socializing with their peers
- Taking risks according to their choice
Middle schoolers may also believe that what you're selling is a whole lot of hogwash. So you'll need to show them what you're talking about, and explain the benefits of camp in a way that is sincere, transparent, and convincing. They are also at a unique age socially.
The majority of their experiences are co-educational, so, when possible, they appreciate opportunities not just to socialize, but to participate in camp programs with the other gender.
Camp is a compelling answer to many parents' questions about how to get their kids to take a technology break and remain engaged amidst the potential angst of tween growing pains.
As a colleague of mine loves to say, "Camp is the only place where kids get their electronics taken away from them and thank you for it later." Yes, in the face of life's technological and other challenges, all of a sudden we have something that millions of tween parents are now realizing they need!
So What Do These Kids Do at Camp?
If you want parents to buy in and sign up their kids, you must have a viable program for middle schoolers. At Liberty Lake, middle school-age kids enjoy a true camp experience — not sitting on a bus to get to an amusement park, and not being programmed at a college or prep school. Campers are empowered to help create their own program (an important component) incorporating swimming, playing sports, enjoying visual and performing arts, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities, adventure, etc. They do it with like-minded, like-aged kids, and there is no complaining — only smiles.
Each week, campers log in to their online accounts and make activity selections for the ensuing week. On Monday morning they find out their schedule, go to all their activities, and then have the opportunity to switch some of them for the rest of the week if they've had a change of heart after trying everything. Knowing that they are not "locked in" encourages campers to try new things. Never held a guitar? Try it for a day. Never gone fishing? Give it a try. When campers of this age select their own schedule, there's never a problem with them getting from place to place; they are excited to get to what they have chosen!
While typical campers would be happy in most any camp environment, the Liberty Lake model works wonders for the "square pegs" out there who have unique interests. For example, campers, who may be turned off by team sports but enjoy individual sports in which they compete against themselves, can take advantage of activities such as high ropes, archery, boating, and martial arts. We've had many campers who have discovered hidden talents in the arts, as well as in fringe activities like beekeeping. In fact, after discovering an interest in beekeeping at day camp, one of our tween campers got a bee apiary in her suburban backyard for Christmas. Another former camper (present counselor) who tried DJing for the first time at camp a few years ago recently performed as a trap music (an electronic dance music genre that originated in the early 1990s) DJ in a club concert in Philadelphia.
With so many choices and opportunities around them, we have created a feeling that being creative is cool — and borrowing the mantra from my friends at Eden Village Camp, we will literally chant "TRY NEW THINGS" to urge campers to take the plunge.
The 14- and 15-year-olds participate in a Teen Leadership Program that teaches them skills for life, including:
What we realized with these teens is that they are about to embark on their high school career, and college is on their radar screen. They are ready for more responsibility — they actually crave it. So we created a program designed to push them out of their comfort zones every day and get them to realize their potential. With a sophisticated, two-season leadership workshop curriculum, teambuilding on our ropes course and fields, and an extensive service project program at camp and off site, our 14- and 15-year-old day campers are doing amazingly meaningful work, the positive effects of which are felt within the camp environment and in the community at large. And they absolutely love it.
What Will Attract Parents of Tweens and Teens?
Parents are looking for challenging, real experiences that offer their kids the opportunity to gain valuable life skills. And we all do that!
To get the message out, we have to meet tweens, teens, and their parents where they are, so take advantage of social media and make sure you incorporate the right words so families can find you through organic Internet searches. Be intentional. Stress that camp is an outside experience, incorporate lots of empowering choices, community service, significant projects, and the opportunity to make new friends. For parents who want their children to know what it's like to experience life without a technology device in hand, let them know your camp's policy on smartphones, tablets, etc., or that your camp is 100 percent technology free. Don't pussyfoot around with that — go all the way! Put it in your advertisements, write articles on it to publish in the local papers, blog it, Facebook post it, shout it out. Camp is the answer to today's tween and teen parents' desire to show their kids what can be accomplished without the touch of a button or instant access to the Internet or social media. You have what they need — camp is the antidote to technology overload and the isolation that comes with it, and a potential pathway to broader horizons and new human connections for a whole lot of first-time middle school campers!
Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Chief Ouray, Granby, Colorado.
Ahuja, M. (2013, March 13). Teens are spending more time consuming media, on mobile devices. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/postlive/teens-arespending- more-time-consuming-media-onmobile- devices/2013/03/12/309bb242-8689- 11e2-98a3-b3db6b9ac586_story.html
Andy Pritikin is the founder, owner, and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Columbus, New Jersey, a founding partner of Everwood Day Camp in Sharon, Massachusetts, and president of the American Camp Association, NY/NJ. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.