Forget the Laptop, Bring Binoculars Instead

Why your tech-savvy kid needs summer camp.

Kids can learn anywhere — inside the home in a classroom, or outside under a tree. But of course, it is during summer, when the crickets chirp and daylight stretches a little longer, that nature’s education is truly showcased. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of Mother Earth’s learning tools, ones that don’t need to be plugged in, powered on, or downloaded. 

Given how tied we are to technology today, perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that the Kaiser Foundation reports kids ages 8 to 18, spend an average of 6.5 hours a day absorbed in some type of electronic media. What’s more, most of that time is spent in solitary activities.

At summer camp, kids are encouraged to interact with something other than a keyboard or controller. The emphasis is on two-way communication — with real people. At the end of the day, there are no winners, no losers, and no points being tallied. Consider these five reasons why every tech-savvy child needs to unplug.

Experience life powered by humans 

Sadly, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an American child is six times more likely to play a video game on any given day than to ride a bike. With an estimated 22 million of the world’s children under the age of 5 already considered obese, there’s growing need to increase a child’s physical activity. 

Summer camp offers actual — not virtual — activities, like fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and gymnastics. The really promising news is that, according to research conducted by the American Camp Association (ACA), 63 percent of children who learn new activities at camp tend to continue engaging in these activities after they return home. This can lead to continued physical exercise that lasts a lifetime. 

“Often times, camp is a child’s first exposure to recreational activities. Instruction and skill development usually come with that and can awaken in campers a lifetime of enjoyment,” says Jill Thompson of Tips on Trips and Camps, a free camp advisory service. “It’s easier to step outside their comfort zone while at camp because that’s where everyone is trying new things. Being at camp removes the pressure of performance that is often put on students through school and their everyday life,” she says.

Person-to-Person Skills

At camp, kids are away from the overwhelming bombardment of media. Time is spent outside running, jumping, and playing with other kids. Summer camp exists to provide supportive relationships, meaningful opportunities, and challenging activities in a physically and emotionally safe environment. “It’s a place designed for and with children, where they can explore and discover an important rite of passage,” says Peg Smith, the ACA’s chief executive officer.

“They are able to make new friends, escape labels that are put on them in school, and develop self-esteem,” adds Thompson.

Nature’s Cure for Stress

Unfortunately, kids aren’t exempt from the anxieties of daily life. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Essex in England, nature can help people recover from pre-existing stresses or problems. The research indicates that nature also has an immunizing effect that offers protection from future stresses, and helps people to concentrate and think more clearly. Additionally, according to a study by two Cornell University environmental psychologists, being close to nature can help boost a child’s attention span.

Real Life Real Close

Camp provides a bit of real life you won’t experience from the end of a game controller or by texting a friend across town. “You will get homesick, other campers will be mean to you, the food won’t be great,” says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel. “You’ll be cold and hot and hungry.” Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, hopes that some of these things will happen during a camping experience. “Otherwise a child is deprived of living life. Of its thorns and its roses.”

Hi-tech Benefits for Camper Parents

Just like bringing the teacher an apple, receiving a letter from camp is a time-honored tradition. The practice has gone on for generations, and is still encouraged today. However, since this is 2011, camps like to take advantage of hi-tech capabilities. While campers benefit from unplugging, technology is still a good way for parents to stay in the loop. Many camp websites post newsletters, videos and pictures of campers for parents to view. 

At many sleep-away camps, parents can fax or send their camper an e-mail. Some camps allow campers to e-mail home once a week. Most still encourage campers to use snail mail as the best way to send a message home.

“It seems that children are shielded from real-life experiences with screens,” observes Smith. “But it is amazing what can happen when children step out from behind the TV, video game, or computer screen into a rich camp environment full of experiences and surprises — new friends, new songs, new achievements, combined with new growth and independence.”       

Claire Yezbak Fadden is an award-winning freelance writer and mother of three sons, one who grew up to be a camp counselor.

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