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Serious Learning Happens at Summer Camp - Without Technology


For young people (read: screenagers) growing up in the hyper-connected, always-on era of the first century of the third millennium, unfettered access to technology is fraught with what might appear to be emerging mood disorders. No surprise there. Yet it may also be the case that anxiety and depression are linked to time away from the electronic stimulation engendered by smartphones and a seemingly endless array of new apps that propel self-definition, at least for external consumption, and social interaction.

For those ending a summer at camp, the transition back to home, school and screen time can be infused with lessons from June, July and August.

Indeed, in her August 2016 broadcast and story “Summer Camps Struggle to Enforce Bans on Screen Time," award-winning National Public Radio reporter Tovia Smith cited the evolution of emotional responses to decreased phone time by a number of teen leaders from Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts.

“When 16-year-old Lily Hildreth first arrives, she says she would constantly ‘tap my pockets, and you're like, what am I missing?’”

According to 15-year-old Jack Reilly, he “actually got the shakes. Well... sort of. He says he felt phantom vibrations from his empty pocket for weeks.” Believing he’d received a text, he’d search his pockets thinking, “‘Where's my phone? Like, oh wait, I don't have my phone. I'm at camp!’”

16-year-old Jonah Bachman rediscovered the fun of reading after a five-year hiatus. “‘I forgot how much I loved reading!’ Since quitting his phone habit, he says he's also more engaged with friends and the outdoors. ‘Often times I'll sort of just find myself walking around … down to the ocean, just sort of being there,’ he says.”

Smith’s conversation with 17-year-old Aggie Chamlin contained similar themes of absorption. “‘I mean this view! You definitely want your friends to see it,' says Chamlin. 'I mean how could you not want to brag about this?'" But Chamlin has seen the light. Now six weeks sans selfies, she says she is actually able to be more herself. And she says being phone-free has also led her to make friends with kids who are not exactly in her comfort zone – kids she would never even talk to at home.

“‘I think a cell phone's a virtual wall that you put up for yourself,’ she says. ‘You're on your phone, and it's like you don't need to communicate with this person. You just don't have to.’”

Brooke Hackel, 16, says life without technology first felt restrictive but now feels liberating. Smith reports, “And it's completely cured her ‘FOMO,’ or ‘Fear Of Missing Out,’ that she feels when she scrolls through everyone else's smiling, laughing posts. ‘I feel like social media stresses me out a lot,’ she says. ‘And so not being able to have [the phone] prevents it completely. There's nothing you can worry about, ’cause it's out of your hands.’”

It’s out of their parents’ hands as well, a change many moms and dads may have difficulty navigating. But, that’s sort of the point.

As I explained to the dissenting parent of a 16-year-old camper, the industry standard is to intentionally create summer camp environments that are different from the modern world children and teens inhabit the rest of the year. The Cape Cod Sea Camps’ policy states that the culture and community we aim to establish at camp is different from the broader culture in which we raise our children. Camp can still provide an experience where young people work and play actively, create excitement through creativity and enjoy friends without the distractions of the electronic world.

Bette Bussel, Executive Director of the American Camp Association, New England, told me, “When campers unplug from technology, there are often two major advantages. One comes from the power of real face-to-face interaction, the other from the chance to move and be active. By engaging with other children and counselors in person, campers build the communication and collaboration skills that will prove useful if not invaluable after camp, in college and in adult life. Campers naturally become more physically active without screens to watch or to use for social media. Camp is not a sedentary place.” She elaborated, “Summer camps create unique opportunities for engagement that are not available back home or at school. The absence of technology has quite a bit to do with setting up those life-changing opportunities.”

Camp also fosters independence and a transformative shift from an external locus of control – imposed by parents and other authoritative adults – to an internal one where children, teens and emerging adults learn the art of self-regulation, or making choices that are in their own best interest and of the community in which they reside.

Still, time away from electronic communication can be hard.

A June 2016 New York Times article by Jill Werman Harris, “Phone-Sick at Camp,” points out, “Leaving for sleepaway camp is, for many children, a major step toward independence. Today, when cellphones keep parents and children in nearly constant contact, the fact that most camps have phone-free policies makes breaking away even more of a challenge.”

Chris Thurber, camp professional and psychologist, offers in the same article, “Camp-age kids, by even 10 or 11, are used to texting and being in frequent contact with their parents … How we communicate has changed the nature of attachment, and it complicates the separation that kids and parents go through.”

Is it worth it? Mountains of data say yes.

In “Lessons From Camp,” an article published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Leah Shafer states, “Summer camp: For so many kids, it signifies carefree days of swimming, playing sports, singing songs, and reveling in freedom from the demands of the school year. Camp means no homework, no studying, and no teachers. But significant learning is still taking place – even if the campers don’t necessarily realize it.”

Shafer goes on to highlight the social-emotional learning that often occurs within a summer camp environment. This knowledge relates to such things as self- and social-awareness, relationship skills, self-management and responsible decision-making. She notes that camps cultivate such skills in 10 important ways.

1. Introducing children to an entirely new group of peers
2. Creating a space where silliness is accepted, and bullying is not
3. Setting up opportunities for children to find their own friends
4. Requiring children to solve day-to-day problems on their own
5. Modeling teamwork and sportsmanship
6. Helping children uncover new skills
7. Offering kids the chance to set and accomplish daily goals
8. Presenting activities that are new to everyone
9. Providing time for reflection
10.Taking a break from technology

Might it be that the last one propels the rest? Research aside, last year 11-year-old camper Katherine Flanagan from Cape Cod Sea Camps wrote a letter to her parents asking for a longer stay in 2016 by explaining, “Camp is a place where I can be happy. [It] also helps me expand my self-advocating skills [and] teaches responsibility. It is also possible that [I] could gain friends and have tight and amazing friendships. Camp can provide that and can form me into a strong, independent woman.”

From the mouths of babes … and written on paper with ink. Go figure.


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