The Benefits of Being Device-Free at Camp

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Camp offers kids a vast array of benefits – time in nature, new skills, and lifelong friendships. But at many camps there’s another perk – weeks free from devices. No phones, no screens, no social media. And while it may take a few days of adjustment, camp directors say kids gain on a whole range of fronts, from their appreciation of the outdoors, to their ability to socialize, to the quality of their sleep.

Maine Teen Camp in Porter offers time in nature, new skills and lifelong friendships.

Maine Teen Camp Has A “no device” Policy

        Matt Pines, director of Maine Teen Camp in Porter, says camps are in a unique position to get kids away from their devices. While parents may have difficulty controlling screen time, camps can simply implement a “no device” policy that “takes the pressure off parents, and takes the pressure off kids,” Pines says.  And the benefits of such a policy have their basis in neuroscience, Pines says.

              Being away from devices teaches kids how to interact face-to-face, and introduces kids to daydreaming, and the experience of boredom. It presents kids with the opportunity to use their senses in nature, allowing them to restore both body and mind in the outdoors. But if kids are attached to their devices, Pines says, the neural pathways enabling these skills to develop may be “pruned away” in adolescence.

              “It’s much harder to learn things when we’re adults than when we’re kids,” Pines says. “What we believe is that if kids don’t know how to be away from devices when they’re teenagers, they’re not going to be able to be away from them when they’re adults.”

               “It’s not something we can do. We must do it; we have an obligation to these kids to be device-fee.”

              The adjustment can be difficult, Pines says. Kids initially may be “antsy,” and may “struggle with social connection,” he says. “They haven’t been engaging that particular skill set for a very long time.” Kids reliant on their devices may also be sleep deprived, Pines says.

              Camps have an obligation to help kids fill the void created by removing devices, Pines says. At Maine Teen Camp, where most kids attend a four-week session, youngsters’ days are filled with “intriguing, exciting things,” he says. “You’re coming here, we’re taking away your phone, here’s what we’re going to do to help you overcome that,” he says.

              The process is similar to combatting homesickness, Pines says.  “We recognize that if we can keep them active and keep them busy and engaged, especially for that first 48 to 72 hours, by that time their brain is rewiring itself, and the urge to use that device or sit in front of a screen is greatly diminished.”

              There are numerous benefits, he says. Kids begin to sleep better, and they may experience renewed creativity. Back at home, kids may perform better in school, he says. When kids put down their devices, their attention is not “stolen away in dribs and drabs.” 

              “For camps, we have an obligation to sort of go device-free and then talk about what it means,” Pines says.  “As an industry we should be talking about it much more.”

Campers enrolled for more than two weeks are granted the privilege of briefly checking in with home or social media

Bryant Pond’s Mission is to Keep Kids Unplugged

              At Bryant Pond 4-H Camp in Bryant Pond, director Ron Fournier says campers are in session from one to four weeks. Parents “learn out of the gate that our mission is to keep kids unplugged,” he says. While the stage is set at home, Fournier says that kids learn through team-building and ice-breaking exercises that the camp is committed to teaching youngsters how to be “present in the community, and not distracted by things like phones.”

              “We don’t see a lot of pushback,” he says. And after a short period of anxiety for some kids, “after the first day or two there’s a sense of relief. They’re less stressed out.”

“It doesn’t take long to drift into a natural state,” he says.

              Campers enrolled for more than two weeks are granted the privilege of briefly checking in with home or social media, he says.

Staff are asked to be role models, Fournier says.

              Fournier says that for trip leaders, being unplugged enhances a group’s “ability to be in a wild state.”

              “The adventure starts to get watered down when they’re in constant contact with the office,” he says.

              Bryant Pond plans to continue with its no-technology policy, but Fournier acknowledges that the issue presents some challenges to camps nationally. Some parents and kids are anxious about not being permitted direct contact via devices. “I’m sure there are some kids who won’t go to camp because of that,” he says. At Bryant Pond, concerned parents are permitted to schedule check-ins with their child, he says.

              Overall, though, “it’s okay not to know what your kid is doing 24/7,” he says. Parents concerned because they haven’t seen their child on the camp’s Facebook page needn’t worry. “Nothing’s going on,” Fournier says. “They’re having a blast.”

Camp Wawenock strives to help campers “grow into thoughtful, caring, young women.

 Camp Wawenock, in Raymond, is also Technology-Free

“I have no doubt in my mind it’s positive for kids and adults,” says Director Catriona Sangster. “It is also now something that parents are really looking for.”

“I think parents are relieved there’s a place where kids can go without that distraction, and quite frankly I think kids are relieved,” she says.

Like Pines, Sangster says that being engaged in camp activities allows kids to use their brains in different ways, and teaches them that they “can be satisfied and happy” without the device. In addition, Sangster says the no-device existence at camp offers “a springboard for conversation about using social media or technology in appropriate ways.”

Talking to campers about how they interact face-to-face at camp can give rise to discussions about to interact on social media, Sangster says. “It’s easier for me than for their parents,” she says. “Our parents are so on board with it; I’m so grateful.”

              Sangster says Camp Wawenock strives to help campers “grow into thoughtful, caring, young women. A piece of it is made easier by not having technology as part of the experience.”

              “The kids don’t want it here,” she says. “The proof is in the pudding. They don’t want it.”


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