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Expert: Disconnecting kids for camp time can improve their social skills and more

Sending a child to camp for the first time can be stressful for campers and their parents, but in the age of always-online kids, the real separation anxiety may come when camp pulls the plug on electronics.

Tom Rosenberg, spokesman for the American Camp Association, said camp options are very diverse, offering a fit for even the most high-tech child.

“There are also a lot of residential camps that have been around for a hundred years,” he said. “It’s very differentiated.”

But almost all camps are designed to get kids to look up from their phones and interact with their peers and the world around them.

“Camps are working very hard – 91 percent of ACA camps have technology policies that don’t allow campers to have a tech device at camp,” Rosenberg said. “They are preserving that human experience.”

Going to camp gives children the opportunity to practice social skills and the face-to-face contact, collaboration and communication that social media and other online connections do not.

“Camps are partners with the academic school year,” Rosenberg said. “We are focusing on developing social-emotional learning. Camps on the cutting edge are working to create deep learning experiences.”

It can be a challenge for children to detach from their online interaction and for parents to break that constant connection to their kids.

“We used to talk about separation anxiety impacting the camper,” Rosenberg said. “We still have homesickness too, but they are missing their devices. Today’s parents also are challenged to separate ourselves and give our children that independent experience to go to camp.”

But Rosenberg said the change is a good one that helps children learn skills that transcend the online world.

“It’s about building community – living in a bunk or a tent, being intentional about spending time together, learning to communicate eyeball to eyeball,” he said. “Day camps and residential camps really provide the opportunity to build that kind of community and learn how to fail and try again and be resilient. Camp is a place to meet diverse people, try new things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Camp is a space that is sacred, that allows them to be themselves.”

If parents subvert that process, especially by attempting to override camp policies about phones and other devices, it robs children of an important experience.

“It doesn’t afford them the independent experience away from parents if they are connected digitally,” Rosenberg said. “The key thing is that the camp director and the parents become partners. Camps are very structured environments. An important question for a new camp parent is ‘how will you communicate with me?’ Camp directors today recognize that parents are very much a part of their kids’ everyday lives digitally.”

Many camps share photos and videos, sometimes on social media and sometimes through secure websites that only parents can access. This gives parents a one-way mirror into camp, according to Rosenberg.

Ultimately, camp can be an important growth experience for children.

“This generation is on the front end of a mental health crisis where kids are lonelier than ever,” Rosenberg said. “They are taking fewer positive risks with their friends. Camp is a place where they can practice those skills and have a rich social experience that will built their self-esteem.”

More: Our 2018 Camp Guide Listing

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