I recently wrote about a counselor training event we call our Parent Forum. We invited a group of camp parents to sit on a panel and discuss with our staff why they chose our camp, and why it is such a good fit for their family. During the event Felicia, a mom from Boston, told a story that really stuck with me. She said that over the winter she took drove her teenage son and his two camp friends to a buddy's bar mitzvah in New York. On the way there, rather than using the trip to text, Snapchat and play Madden Mobile, the three camp friends talked and laughed with each other the entire drive. And the entire drive back. As she told the story she pointed out that as close as he may be with his home friends, when they are on a car ride together each spends the trip fully engrossed in their electronic devices. It's only with his camp friends that he will voluntarily take a break from technology and truly interact.
For more than 10 years now our brother-sister summer camp community has proudly identified itself as an "unplugged summer camp" and it is an important characteristic of who we are and what we do.
I am writing this as I fly back across the country, having spent 4 days completely unplugged from the world of apps, media and the Internet. The experience was…well, magical. Transformative. A childhood friend invited a group of us to spend his birthday camping in the Redwood Forest, and asked that we all lock all of our electronics in the trunks of our respective rental cars. Amazingly, everyone did. True to our word, and true to the spirit of the experience he sought, we all went 4 days without texting, emailing, or even using our phones as flashlights. I don't have a single photo.
Last week a good friend sent me an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "Stop Googling. Let's Talk". It was about the unintended consequences of our plugged in culture, and it gave some staggering statistics and anecdotes.
The other day Scott forwarded me an article about a group of teenagers in London who intentionally unplugged from the world of mobile phones and apps for a week. The results were incredibly telling.
Our summer camp in New Hampshire prides itself on giving our campers "summers unplugged". We ask them to spend 7 weeks of glorious life without their laptops, ipads, cell phones, or even ipods. No Facebook, no email, nu Netflix, no Snapchat. The research is pretty clear that developing brains need extended time away from electronic communication devices. Anecdotally we see every summer how a vacation from mobile devices leads to kinder, more empathic campers who create deeper, more meaningful friendships.
When I was a Kenwood and Evergreen camper, one of my favorite parts of the experience was playing games in our bunk during downtime. No one had thought to bring hand-held electronic game systems to Camp, and no one had yet to invent Iphones or apps. During Rest Period after lunch, and on raining days, we would sit on the floor and actually play. Together. Without digital screens. It was incredible, and one of the ways we got to know each other each summer. We played a lot of board games, including checkers, RISK, battleship and backgammon. Our favorite card game was Spit, though we also played a ton of Gin Rummy and Crazy 8's.
Thankfully, not that much has changed at K&E during the intervening years. We're still a pretty unplugged summer camp. Campers are asked to leave their iphones and ipads at home, and are only allowed to bring devices that play music, and are unable to email, text, access the web, view videos, or use any apps. Our counselors are also required to keep their mobile devices outside of the bunks, away from the campers. We make this request of our community because it's part of our camp community's culture, but also because of the growing body of research about the importance of developing brains having extended unplugged time.
It usually takes our more plugged-in kids about 24 hours of being at our summer camp in NH before they forget that they even own such things, let alone how attached they become when they are using them at home. And then they (re)discover how lovely life can be without always being tethered to a mobile device. They use their free time for hanging out, being outside, goofy conversations, and a lot of olde school game playing. It's part of the magic life at our camp in NH.
This is what free time is like when you spend your summers unplugged with camp friends!
So what are the games that campers and counselors play at Kenwood and Evergreen these days? Many of the board games are the timeless classics: checkers, chess, backgammon, monopoly, and battleship. Spit is still the dominant card game, though Prez, Uno and War are still popular as well. But in the last few years one game kind of appeared out of nowhere and became the unofficial card game at Camp, or at least at Camp Kenwood: it's called Magic: The Gathering. Most in our camp community refer to it as "Magic Cards". Few parents seem to have ever heard of it.
Kenwood campers of many ages spending a Rest Period playing Magic Cards
So what exactly are Magic cards? I must admit that while I've watched kids play it for many summers, it was only recently that I came to fully understand the rules and strategy involved. On the same day that I gave one of my kids a deck of Magic cards for Hanukkah this year a long-time K&E parent forwarded me this article:
Camp was without power this morning, and yet we were all very happy campers.
Camp received a whole lot of wind and rain last night, and when we woke up we discovered that the power had gone out. A ways down Eagle Pond Road a tree branch had fallen onto a power line, and while it was being fixed the power company shut us off. As soon as we learned of this Scott turned on our diesel-powered backup generator so that our fabulous kitchen team could make breakfast for the community. As Walshy and I walked through the bunks to wake everyone up (the PA system was also temporarily down) we found large numbers of kids happily sitting on their beds, quietly entertaining themselves. While this is not what we mean by saying that we offer "summers unplugged" it was great to see how easily our kids are able to disconnect themselves from the technological world. As I woke up the campers in Bunk 11 we had a hysterical debate about whether or not the tree that fell onto the power line made a sound, since no one was there to hear it.
Strangely enough, this was the second year in a row that our town lost power on the 4th of July, and many campers are now asking if it can be a tradition. Now THAT'S learning how to adapt!
I will be leaving for a vacation in just a couple of days, and one of things that I am most looking forward to is seeing my entire family unplug. We will be staying in a remote location where there is no cell reception, no internet, no Xbox, and no TV. As a rule we put down our many mobile devices for more than a week, and it is absolutely glorious. At first it’s a little awkward, and I have to fight my impulse to grab my beloved iphone and use one of its apps, but fairly quickly my brain recalls the decades of my life when I didn’t always have a device at my side. My kids are suddenly required to fill their free time with something other than Temple Run and Minecraft, and my wife and I refrain from checking our work emails, or posting on Facebook or Instagram. To put it mildly, it’s heaven. Over the 8 days of vacation we reconnect with each other on a much deeper level than we do at any other point of the year.