Partnership and Screens at Summer Camp
Let’s talk about technology at Stomping Ground.
We are an outlier in the sleepaway camp world in a number of aspects of our program.
We have a huge amount of freedom in our schedule. We have an entire area of camp dedicated to letting kids get up to their own stuff, called Downtown Stomping Ground. We have all gender cabins for families that want them. We partner with our campers at an incredible level to work through conflict when it arises. We are radically transparent with kids about the decisions we make… AND we have kids that bring and use cell phones and other screens to camp.
Screens at camp is a complicated topic and most sleepaway camps in the US prohibit their campers from having them. Laura and I work with camps all over the country, speak at conferences, and I run a professional development organization for camp directors called The Summer Camp Society. We talk with a lot of people running camps about this topic.
I imagine whether we have screens at camp, like all policies at Stomping Ground, will be an ongoing discussion and one that may change in the future. It is not something we have taken lightly, and something we have debated a lot. The goal is to have a policy that works for our campers and families, and best furthers our mission. In the end, it is a question of how we weigh our priorities. Let me try to explain our current thinking.
To start, some logistics.
Our cabins don’t have electricity.
There is very, very limited cell service at camp.
Currently, most kids spend incredibly limited time on screens at camp.
What Actually Happens At Camp
When we opened camp in 2015 we took a risk to have screens at camp. I was scared for many of the arguments above and mostly because I hated the idea of having a camp where everyone just sat on their phones and didn’t talk to each other. I was scared, but willing to try because I felt that having screens would let us really show that we trusted our campers, and our new campers had no prior reason to trust us so we needed to swing for the fences.
For me, the most compelling argument for screens at camp now is that most kids don’t spend much time on their phones and when they do they are mostly playing with other kids. If kids were constantly sitting playing games or messing with bit mojis I would probably advocate for a policy change. If kids were mostly choosing their phones over sitting and talking, swimming, searching for newts, playing board games, or battling dragons, I’m not sure we would be doing our jobs.
The most compelling argument for having screens at Stomping Ground is that we can have our cake and eat it too. Kids have screens and mostly don’t use them or use them to socialize. This lets us double down on the partner with not power over structure, live in the moment, and inspire wonder and awe.
Staff and Culture
What happens at camp isn’t an accident. This is partly because we have some cool activities that kids can’t do other places, partly because there are so many other kids around and most kids love playing with each other, and partly because of the staff.
Our staff work hard to model what we think is good Stomping Ground screen etiquette. They aren’t constantly on their phones or sitting off to the side playing video games, but they also aren’t shaming screen use. They might put on a song and start a dance party or use their phone to take a video of an awesome cabin skit, but mostly they are engaging with kids and modeling great listening or conversation.
The hardest part for staff is finding ways to partner with kids that seem like they are disconnected. Laura wrote an awesome article about freedom and support here. The crux is that we spend a lot of time working with staff around having conversations that are supportive, not shaming, of kids who are spending a lot of time reading or playing video games. The moral of the story there is, focus on your relationship with the camper first. Try to understand what they are wanting: connection, autonomy, mastery, or something else. Then help them get more of that through camp.
Some Arguments Against Screens at Stomping Ground
Limited Time for A Huge Impact
If our goal is to partner with kids to inspire the next generation, and kids are only at camp for a week or two, we need to do everything we can to remove distractions. Stomping Ground is a place to inspire wonder and awe, and give kids experiences they can’t have anywhere else so they can imagine a more perfect world, and then go out and create it. Screens get in the way of this. They give kids too much of a retreat, allow for social isolation, and don’t make them live in the moment.
If Kids Can Screen They Will Screen
Screens can seem like an addiction. In other spaces when kids have access to them they often choose only to play on their screens and not talk to each other or play other games. It is hard to imagine that if we trusted kids to self-regulate their screen time that they would choose anything but screens.
Living in the Moment
By removing screens we may be forced to live in the moment. We don’t have that constant ability to pull out our phone while we wait in the line for pizza or outside the bathhouse. Without screens, we have to talk to each other and build connection with the people around us.
With phones or other devices, kids can show each other stuff that wouldn’t normally fly at camp. Even though kids are always supervised at camp, there is a chance kids can move out of earshot and talk about inappropriate things. The lack of cell service makes mature content less likely on a screen, but it is still possible.
Some Arguments for Screens at Stomping Ground
Our goal is to partner with kids to inspire the next generation. By not standing between kids and one of their most prized possessions, we stand in stark contrast to most other adults in their lives. We are able to authentically and unbiasedly have conversations about what is real in their lives, including technology, social media, video games, etc. By allowing screens at camp, staff are able to connect with campers in honest and relatable ways around their screens. This is a different type of connection than would be possible if we outlawed phones.
We believe kids learn best how to make decisions by making them, not by following directions. By trusting that kids decide how to interact with their screens in the best way for them and helping them through situations when they mess up, we make good on our promise to value kids choices at camp. Do they always make choices they are proud of? No, but what better place to work through those decisions than in a community of so many caring role models excited to talk with them about the impact of their decisions, while helping them think through what they are wanting. We do this in all aspects of camp and screens are just another area to be a support for kids.
Real Self Control
By having screens and learning the value of using them and not using them, kids learn real control over their choices. They often leave camp feeling like they are in control of their devices as opposed to feeling like they are controlled by those same devices.
By having screens we are able to welcome kids to camp that rely on those devices for comfort and self-regulation. We have any number of kids at camp that struggle socially and have failed at other camps or youth organizations and succeed at Stomping Ground. For some of those kids a big part of that is the ability to play a quick game or retreat into their phone or tablet.
Culturally families that are limiting phones often have more privilege. Many of our camper families with less privilege love the thought of knowing they will have that small piece of comfort. Coming to the woods and being so far from home is already a huge leap of faith for many families and the idea of having their phones taken away would be a deal breaker.
I will be honest. As the world changes, or if we moved locations and we had unlimited cell services or wifi, we might prohibit screens at camp. Our policy around tech is a combination of our mission and what is effective at the time. At the moment, some kids bring their screens to camp and instead of taking away from their time at camp, we are able to use this technology to build a stronger partnership with them.