Building self-esteem, enjoying the sweet success of adjusting to being away from home, making friendships and rising to a host of new challenges are some of the compelling reasons to send your child to sleep-away camp.
A good camp shepherds campers through a host of experiences, supports them while they navigate through new situations and affords them the invaluable opportunity to move beyond their comfort zone and grow as individuals. Few things make a child more proud than knowing they can master a challenge and succeed in a new setting. I can do it. I am a success. I am capable. These are just some of the positive affirmations that children take away after a summer at camp. And these powerful mantras have a lifelong impact.
Yet there’s one thing that we didn’t deal with as kids that impedes our children’s social successes: technology. If you are a parent over 30, chances are as a youngster you rode your bike freely, stretching your independence with little fear or constraints from your parents. You played pickup ball on your street, climbed trees, caught frogs, pitched tents in your backyard and wore through the soles of your new sneakers before you grew out of them. You created activities outside without arranged play dates and mom and dad for the most part stayed in the wings unless you needed their help. The bottom line is that with the advent of the Internet, 24-hour news channels and Amber Alerts, parents have become fearful and children no longer have the same freedom and often suffer from lack of independence.
To add fuel to the fire, today’s kids are deluged with distracting technologies that actually hobble their social skills. Conversations have gone the way of texting, which is devoid of inflection and body language, often leaving children with difficulty reading social cues. Video games edge out pickup games in the park. And Facebook has eclipsed group activities and pitted kids against images of others who seem happier, prettier and more popular.
Technology is here to stay and with it comes many advantages. However, technology has a way of distracting us from real life and creates a vacuum for kids. Some call it nature deficit disorder, emphasizing the need to play outside and spend time enjoying our natural surroundings. However, the even bigger issue is that as social beings, children desperately need to practice communicating face to face. Without that opportunity, their social development is stunted, which may have implications academically and professionally as they become adults.
Sleep-away camps that are technology-free give kids a fertile environment to fully and freely engage with each other as human beings. Campers interact on the basis of who they are not what they post on a social networking platform or how skilled they are at a video game. They are simply campers as we were decades ago. There is an honesty and sincerity that envelopes them. Group conversations create opportunities to become more assertive and verbal or empathetic and sensitive to others. Children are free to reinvent themselves in a community that depends upon, actually thrives upon, communication and togetherness.
When technology is removed from camp, there is room for not only robust activities of skill and stamina like color war and Apache relay races, there is room for quiet conversations around a campfire, during flashlight time before bed and at rest hour while writing letters with real paper and pen.
Those magical campfires bring us back to the basics — a relaxed, natural place where we are in awe by the fire’s ability to inspire a community, where we are equally aligned in our basic human needs for comfort, connection and face-to-face communication.
Beyond the beauty and symbolism of the campfire and the meaningful dialogues it sparks, the evening gatherings reinforce some powerful messages that are distinctly unique to the sleep-away camp experience: first, that the camper can separate successfully from mom and dad, giving them confidence and a sense of independence; second, that deep friendships can be made and real bonding done without parental orchestration; and third, and this is the biggest lesson in my opinion, that they can be protected and cared for by adults other than mom and dad.
Technology sucks kids in for hours at a time, removing precious hours from daily living and opportunities to read, relax, play, interact, use board games or play cards with others. There is little chance to hide at sleep-away camp, unlike the hiding that is done behind a screen. Being exposed to constant social interaction and connectedness is powerful for kids and is the single most valuable aspect of sleep-away camp.
When kids navigate through the maze of challenges and accomplishments at camp they feel successful. They know they can survive without parents in their immediate orbit and that they can build relationships with their peers and mentors. They can enjoy experiences free of the distraction technology creates. They can work out conflicts with peers with the help of a supportive, caring counselor or camp director. They have a new family and a second home where they are now an integral part.
Sleep-away campers gain confidence and become more grounded and independent, thus giving their parents satisfaction and the ultimate return on their unplugged investment.
Lauren Pine Bernstein is the owner and director of Camp Walden in Diamond Point, NY. Visit www.campwalden-ny.com to learn more about her work at summer camps.