Honest Reflections on a Week of Summer Camp with no Technology Restrictions

The good, the bad, and the ugly of unlimited technology at summer camp

Kids and tablets

Kids and tablets

As some of you may know, in the summer of 2015 I started a new pilot summer camp program with a few other camp professionals - Laura Kriegel, Jack Schott, Scott Arizala, and Sylvia Van Meerten. We set out to create an environment where kids were free to pursue what they wanted to do, on their own terms, in a community that valued trust and respect for all of the individuals who were a part of the community.

The pitch was - "Kids can do what they want, with whom they want, for as long as they want." Sounds pretty good if you value autonomy, right? Right. There was just one catch that we faced when planning for summer: What if the campers who came wanted to use *gasp* technological devices while they were at camp? What if they wanted to spend their time watching YouTube, or calling their moms, or playing video games? Would that be camp at all?

We decided that, for our purposes, that still was camp. We didn't want to create a place separate from the world. We wanted to create an environment where kids could see what the world could be like if they were trusted to do them as long as they weren't harming anyone else or breaking the law. A place where they could elect to stray from their technology, or not, and where we could help them reflect on those choices and grow from them.

So, we did it. We had all come from "unplugged" environments, and intentionally decided to welcome any and all devices to camp. We brought 65 kids in for a week of sleep-away camp, and turned them and their technology loose. What follows is how it went for us.

The bad

Most of you are expecting this to have gone horribly, so I won't make you wait too long to hear the bad stuff. Here goes.

We had a kid leave early who might not have otherwise. Let's call her Candice. She called mom on the first night of camp, and was gone by the second. We felt like we never had a chance, and that there may have been more we could have done had we been able to have been a part of the conversation a little sooner. This was a classic case of, "Once she knew she could go home, she decided to go home." And her parents followed her wishes.

Some kids watched content not suitable for everyone. Now, this was an interesting and not unforeseen dilemma. We don't have hard and fast rules about swearing at camp, but we do have conversations about it when it seems like it's making others uncomfortable. But what do you do about kids who want to watch YouTube videos where the narrator is saying "fuck?" What if everyone seems delighted by it, and no one seems uncomfortable with it at all? Ultimately, we decided to sit down and have common-sense discussions with the gatekeepers of this technology (the owners of the devices that could play videos). We asked them to consider the wishes of the other campers' parents as it pertained to this sort of thing. Generally, the mature content watching stopped, and at the very least it didn't happen in front of younger campers again. We didn't receive any complaints, here.

Some kids without devices definitely weren't pumped. We brought kids in from all sorts of backgrounds. About 15-20% of our kids were on the autism spectrum. Another large chunk were from tough socio-economic backgrounds. It was obvious who had devices and who didn't, and it certainly caused some kids to reflect on this. Interestingly, though, we observed that many kids were already aware of and used to this fact. Many of the non-device bringers would just hang out with those who brought them when they wanted to, and it wasn't necessarily a source of conflict. But we definitely had a few conversations with kids that weren't happy about it.

Kids asking to borrow really expensive things from each other Again, it appeared to me as though this was something that kids had already learned to regulate elsewhere, but I personally felt uncomfortable when it was going on. Since all the parents of kids who brought devices were aware of it, we didn't intervene in these discussions. We didn't observe any campers making any other campers really uncomfortable (though there was some annoyance), and nothing got broken or stolen. Still, it made me uncomfortable.

We had a kid who watched The Office during meals Not exactly group-building, I know. Interestingly, he made plenty of friends throughout the week, but he took meal times to just do his thing. No one seemed to mind, and generally very few campers used devices during meals, but watching this happen felt weird, to me.

Frankly, it was just a hassle sometimes Sometimes kids wanted to call grandma RIGHT when they were going to bed. Sometimes they'd be distracted by their phones and miss some instruction. We probably had to repeat ourselves more than if we had banned technology.

Back-channel communications. Probably most camp directors' biggest fear when it comes to allowing tech at camp - we did have some kids communicate with each other via text, and it took away from our ability to learn about various ongoing dynamics between kids. We plan to retrain ourselves to be hip to different ways to discern what's going on. We didn't have any "cyber-bullying" that we're aware of, but it was an interesting adjustment to get used to totally private communications between kids.

The surprising, but generally neutral

It empowered parents to call us, a lot. You know that call you've gotten on the 4th day of a session from the kid who wrote an impassioned letter home about this, that, or the other thing? Now imagine getting all of those calls on the very first day of camp. Many kids reached out to their parents about little details about camp - some concerns, some good things - but we received a much higher volume of calls than we were used to, for sure. While this caught us off guard, I wouldn't necessarily call it a bad thing. It actually opened the lines for continued parent to camp communication, and largely eliminated any parents being surprised on Saturday at pick-up.

A more common site than kids using the tech - it sitting around while they explored the world.
A more common site than kids using the tech - it sitting around while they explored the world.

They generally only used technology at night time Our vision was to offer amazing activities that would out-compete the technology, but I still expected that kids would use it a lot. They actually didn't. We had open-ended free time after our all-camp game each night, and tech was used heavily during this time by probably 1/4 of all of our kids. Otherwise, it very rarely made an appearance. This was a surprise to me, and I'm still not sure if it's good or bad.

The good

Ah, the good! We went into this experiment thinking that technology at camp would be a net positive on our environment (or, duh, we wouldn't have allowed it), but there were some interesting and surprising things that happened that we never anticipated. Here's what we saw.

It made a 16 year old autistic boy a superstar We had an older camper who, it was plain, struggled socially in other environments. When he came to camp, he spent a lot of his free time playing Pokemon on whatever portable game console he brought to camp. He was really awesome at Pokemon. At nights, when there were no scheduled activities and things were winding down, he'd often have a troop of similarly interested campers watching him capture super-tough Pokemon, and he'd regale them on the finer points of Pokemon strategy. They sought him out during these late night free times, and saw him as something of a guru. I wonder if it's the first time in his life he ever felt like that. He had a fantastic time at camp.

Kids of all ages connecting over video games. A lot of kids really love video games, and it was neat to see them being able to play the games they were passionate about, and share them with each other. There was the aforementioned Pokemon crew, a Minecraft crew, and a few other miscellaneous crews of gamers that found each other each night during our open-ended free time. I once saw a FaceBook meme that claimed that no one ever looks back and remembers the video games they played as a child - I say that's nonsense. These kids were 100% in the moment, loving each second of working together on these games. The Pokemon crew had kids ages 7-16, all equally engaged and a part of the team. It was really cool to see.

Kids dealing with their own homesickness Aside from Candace, we didn't have any discussions about sending anyone home early for homesickness.

On the last day of camp, one of the campers' mothers (who was incidentally a friend of mine) told me that her young daughter had been homesick each night at camp. I was shocked - we're usually on top of this sort of thing, and I couldn't believe I was hearing about it for the first time moments before the child was leaving. I started to apologize, and she stopped me. "No need to be sorry! She dealt with it on her own. She face-timed me a few times when it started kicking in, and came up with our own strategies. I told her she should talk to a counselor, but she didn't need to, I guess."

Generally, we had almost no homesickness, period Now, part of this is because we run a really fun camp :) But joking aside, even though it's a small sample size, I was really surprised to see how little homesickness affected the week at camp. Part of it was campers being able to call home much in the same way they could from a sleep-over, and part of it was just having really fun night time "programming" for kids that wanted it - whether it was playing games, texting friends, or whatever. They weren't without some of their biggest hobbies, and I think there was less to "miss" about being home.

Parents didn't really call us worried. They just.. didn't. They didn't have to think no news was good news, because I imagine they were confident that their kids could call them if there was bad news. Generally, parents seemed more at ease with having their kids away.

It kept us honest & accountable. We hold ourselves to a pretty high standard of honesty and accountability, but it's a totally different animal when you know that every potentially negative thing could be communicated back home, moments after it happens. We stayed on top of communicating with parents about big things, of course, but little things too. We really partnered with parents because we wanted to, but also because we kind of didn't have a choice. No counselors tried to hide anything and hope kids would forget about it (not that they would - not counselors!), and we felt like access to the outside world actually helped us have an even more open community.

It was pretty sweet to have more cameras around camp, and free advertising. Our brilliant social media director put the kids who brought phones on an instagram campaign and gave them a hashtag to use with their pictures. They helped us promote camp all week by uploading selfies, pictures of activities, inside jokes, and so on. They all used this privilege responsibly, in case you were wondering.

We never had to be the TSA No searching for phones in bags, no whispers of so and so texting in the bathroom, no lectures at the beginning of the week about turning in electronics, etc. A small point, perhaps, but it was a nice removal of a little potential tension between staff and kids.

The Million Dollar Question - Will we do it again next year?

In fear of being anti-climactic - we think so. We like the idea of letting kids live in the world that they live in, even at camp. We like them reflecting on whether or not they feel good about using technology so much while they're at camp. We like that they can wean themselves off of technology at their own pace, instead of going "cold turkey" even if they don't want to.

It's interesting, though. When I talked to Jack before writing this article, he said that we probably wouldn't provide them if the kids weren't bringing them themselves. Much in the same way we don't provide candy, or sugary drinks (but we also don't prohibit kids bringing them). If we're being honest, and I have to be since that's the title of this article, kids playing video games and using technology at camp is not aesthetically pleasing, to me. I'd rather see them doing high ropes, or finding joy in a wildflower.

We're also open to some interesting possibilities with technology, though. Maybe we will give kids the option to learn 3D printing, or use recording software, or graphic-design software. But we don't thing we'd provide them with tablets and infinite access to Candy Crush (TM!).

Maybe we're just old fuddy-duddies, I don't know. Maybe my anti-technology bias is just a rehash of grown-ups being scared of rock and roll, or dancing, but I can't see it because, well, I'm older now.

But what we agree on, at least at our camp, is that the use of technology is an inevitability (and likely a very good thing) for the future of our kids. We're thus trying to provide an environment where they can work through how to use that technology responsibly. We expect that they'll make mistakes, and that they (and we) will get bumps and bruises along the way.

So, for now? We'll try it again next year (at least in some capacity). But we're prepared to be scared of and surprised by it yet again.

Does tech at camp scare you? Make you feel gross? Let's have a talk about it in the comments below - I have no idea where the crazy world of technology at camp will take us, but in a world with ever growing access to technology, it's a conversation we are going to have to be a part of.