Between computers, cell phones, iPods, personal gaming devices and hybrid electronics that have a variety of uses, children are plugged in at all times. Yet when they head off to camp, their must-have gadgets may not be on the list of things to pack. So what are they allowed to bring? And how have the rules changed? Read on to find out-the answers may surprise you.
Bringing a cell phone to camp may seem like a great idea for parents who want to keep tabs on their children, yet most camps don't allow it, and others simply are out of range for service. And without a cell phone, texting gets crossed off the list too. "The reasons parents want their children to go to camp is that they want them to build friendships and independence, and to come away with a sense of camaraderie. So from a parent's perspective, a cell phone completely gets in the way," says Sean Nienow, director of the National Camp Association. Most camps have designated times that parents are allowed to call the camp, and children are allowed to call home using the camp's landline. Some camps won't even allow phone calls for the first one or two weeks to allow children to adjust to being away from home. "The children are actually quite happy once they're acclimated to know that they don't have to deal with their cell phones," says Barb Levison, camp advisor for Tips on Trips and Camps, a free advisory service. Levison says that, although it's rare, some camps do allow children to bring cell phones to camp, but distribute them only at specific times to call home. "Most camps will explain to parents that they won't have 24-hour access to their child by phone," explains Levison. "When parents choose a camp, they're in agreement with the philosophy of the camp on basic issues."
A strict cell phone policy also allows camps to deal with issues that arise. If a child is experiencing homesickness or having a conflict with another child or even a counselor, rather than calling home on a cell phone, it's in the child and the camp's best interests to deal with the issue first-hand. "If a child is calling home, it's undermining what the camp ultimately wants to do, which is bring that child into the camp experience," Nienow explains. "In the past, camps didn't allow unfettered access to landlines which is the same reason they don't allow it for cell phones." Similarly, if there's a family emergency and a parent calls a child directly, the camp wouldn't know why the child was upset and wouldn't be ready to handle it. "The camp wants to be the first to know so they can prepare the counselors and the cabin," says Eve Rudin, director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, who adds that camps have full-time office staff available. "Most parents find that if they call the camp, they can get in touch with their children fairly quickly."
Music, Photos, and Gaming
Camps recognize that certain electronics are important for children to bring, but have policies in place to ensure that they don't interfere with the experience. iPods are usually allowed at traditional camp, however their use is restricted to rest periods and idle time in the cabin and before bed. Some camps may also allow iPods during certain activities like jogging or in a fitness setting.
Personal gaming devices are less frequently allowed. "They're seen as more isolationistic because you're completely absorbed in this one activity," explains Nienow, who says that, unlike with games, children can fold their laundry or make their beds while listening to an iPod.
Digital cameras, a staple of camp life, are generally on the approved list as well. "The ability to retain those memories in hard copy form, albeit digital, is an important part of making memories," Nienow says. "Children have been bringing cameras to camp since the inception of camp," says Levison, who notes that children take photos during special camp-wide events rather than during daily activities.
Letters and Laptops
Writing home is one of the most time-honored traditions at camp and most camps encourage - and often require - a certain number of times for children to put pen to paper. "There's something iconic about the letter from camp. The act of actually writing a letter is a deeper experience than typing an email," explains Nienow, who says that many camps require children to bring self-addressed stamped envelopes and stationery to camp. Not only does this create an expectation to write home, it makes it easier for children to do it.
In recent years, some camps have also implemented a one-way email service like bunk1.com or campregister.com. The service allows parents to send email to their children, which camps then print and distribute each day. "Parents are still home in their everyday lives, but their children are in a completely different atmosphere, so this maintains the integrity of the camp experience," says Levison, who adds that the email service is not only convenient for parents, but allows children to receive mail quickly. Some camps also have media centers and provide campers with unique email addresses to send and receive email from their parents.
Laptops are generally not allowed at traditional camps, nor is free time to surf the net allowed. "Traditional camp is kind of like a throwback: you're living in a community and you don't have access to all of the amenities of being home, and one of those is a computer," says Levison.
Specialty camps, like those for sports, performing arts, or media production that typically last for one or two weeks, are for children who want to improve their craft, and are more lenient when it comes to electronics policies. "Allowing a portable DVD player is not really as impactful on the overall experience as it would be at a rustic camp in the Adirondacks," says Nienow, who adds that electronics can even be complementary to the camp experience - pne example would be at a performing arts or digital editing camp where campers may be required to watch a film to enhance what they're learning. Cell phones are usually allowed too, because there's more free time, and calling home is more about saying "hi" than about homesickness. Specialty camps that offer classes like graphic design or computer gaming allow computer access, but only during class time.
The Bottom Line
Although a child's preferred way to communicate is through text, email, and Facebook, "friending" other children and experiencing summer camp seems to be one of the joys of childhood that will remain a constant. "The industry as a whole still feels that camp is one of those places where children have the opportunity to make friends in a 'live' community," Rudin says. "The reason parents send their children to summer camp is to give them a break from the stresses of our technology," Levison adds. "Camp is a way for children to engage with friends face-to-face, have conversations, and use real words and sentences."
And as new electronics become available and continue to be the way children learn, communicate, and, for better or worse, disengage from the world around them, camps will have to reassess their policies. "The challenges and opportunities will continue to change as technology changes," Nienow says, "and camps will be looking for ways to minimize any negative impact but also looking to utilize ways that are beneficial for campers and families and to the overall objective and mission of the camp."