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mike ross

Greetings from tech-free camp

“Camp Granada” is the fictional name of a summer camp in the novelty hit written by Allan Sherman in 1963. The song tells the story of a homesick camper’s letter home, moping about a persistent rain, poison ivy, a lake filled with alligators, and a bunkmate with malaria. Once the sun comes out, however, he quickly shifts, writing, “Wait a minute, it stopped hailing, guys are swimming, guys are sailing, playing baseball, gee that’s better, Muddah Fadduh please disregard this letter.”

No doubt, the same sentiments apply today. But today’s youngsters are accustomed to sending texts, not letters, and most kids old enough to go to camp also have their own cellphones and tablets. But the eternal goal of summer camp isn’t connectivity itself, but connection to nature, sports, and friends to share the outdoors. As a result, summer camps are discovering that they’re the last place in America where technology is not welcome, restricting children’s electronic devices in ways that parents have been unable or unwilling to do on their own.

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Thus, as kids are coming home for the start of school this week, they may be carrying some new skills along with their duffel bags full of laundry: The ability to write an old-fashioned letter.

Steve Lepler, director of the 100-year-old West End House camp in Maine, says that he, as well as his colleagues at nearby camps, are finding that their new roles as technology blockers are keeping them busy. Steve has his campers writing letters and postcards, just like he used to, and does not allow access to e-mail or phones. For most parents it’s the first time they received actual mail from their kids.

Marcy Kornreich who runs Camp Young Judaea told me her campers are on “digital detox,” adding, “I’ll always remember a postcard I saw that a kid sent home that said, ‘I love camp, but my hand feels empty without my phone.’ He was nine years old at the time.” She believes that camp might be the one time in these kids’ lives when they are digital-free.

Peter and Meg Kassen run the Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine, which specializes in arts and outdoors. In years past, they would have to deal with the occasional homesick camper needing an extra bit of support from counselors and staff. Recently, however, they’ve noticed a new phenomenon. According to Peter, “Lately a larger proportion of these campers seem to be experiencing withdrawal pains from electronics.” He added that he is finding fewer campers missing their parents as much as they do their iPads. While he assured me that the vast majority of his campers adjust right away to camp life, this strikes me as a challenge that is only growing.

Beyond the fact that nearly all teenagers now have their own mobile devices, futurists predict, reasonably so, that the technology we reach for in our phones will one day be incorporated into the human body. Unplugging today might be difficult, but perhaps one day, even impossible. Once that happens, will summer camp be able to exist in its current form — as an escape from everyday pressures?

Summer camps are discovering that they’re the last place in America where technology is not welcome.

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Perhaps. I spoke to one camper who recently returned from her technology-free summer at Metropolis of Boston Camp in New Hampshire. Thirteen-year-old Alexis Aggouras told me she usually has her phone with her all the time, using it mostly to text her friends. She sent her last text message (“gotta go I am at camp”) to her friend Sydney just as she was being dropped off by her parents. She also told me that of the 12 bunkmates in her cabin, two had successfully stowed away contraband cellphones for the entire duration. A third had her phone discovered and taken away.

Alexis admitted, however, that she liked being cellphone free, that “there was less drama.” Her mother likes it too, noting that her daughter was more active when she was free from uninterrupted technology, which is part of the reason she went to camp in the first place. For generations, summer camps have offered kids a chance to get away, make new friends, and expand their worldview. Now, it seems, they’re offering something almost as peaceful as a canoe trip down a quiet river: an unplugged existence, if only for a month or two.

Muddah and Fadduh are probably jealous.

Mike Ross’s column appears regularly. Follow him on Twitter @MikeForBoston.
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