For more than a century, parents have sent their kids to camp to enjoy the outdoors, learn new skills, and make new friends.
Today there’s another reason, as rare as fresh air is to city kids: no cellphones.
Most sleepover camps — even the ones that include science, mathematics, and engineering — don’t allow phones or other devices. Campers quickly adjust to the moratorium on pings and ringtones and the constant contact with parents and friends.
The big surprise is the gifts that come with the ban.
Friendships deepen. Experiences are savored before they’re shared. There’s relief from the anxiety of always having to keep up.
“It’s really great being at camp and not texting — writing letters and talking to friends,” says Ava Caporizzo, 15, a ninth-grader at Franklin High School who attends the South Shore YMCA’s Camp Hayward on Cape Cod, and stays in touch with her camp friends all year long.
“Before camp, the first year, I was ‘Oh, no! I’m not going to have my phone,’ ” says Joe Cirame, 14, of Saugus, who goes to Camp Rotary in Boxford. “I got there and no one had their phone, so we were talking to each other.”
Sarah Leshay, a Bedford High School teacher who’s the director at Camp Runels, in Pelham, N.H., says that older girls are “almost relieved” to unplug and enjoy experiences that
aren’t immediately shared via Snapchat or Instagram.
“They swim, do archery, go hiking in the White Mountains,” Leshay says. “They learn to use a jackknife, [climb] the high ropes, activities that make them part of a community that’s existed for 88 summers. They’re still living in the outdoors on a regular basis.”
The no-phones rule is often harder for parents, who on occasion have been known to sneak a phone into their child’s luggage so they can stay in contact. But camp administrators and counselors do their best to assure parents that homesickness is normal and short-lived, and that the surest route to ending a camp stay is a call home.
“I spend much more time on the phone with parents than I ever did,” says Bruce Netherwood, executive director of the South Shore YMCA’s brother-sister camps, Burgess and Hayward, located in Sandwich.
Parents also can keep up with their kids on the camp’s Facebook page, where photographs of happy campers — in sailboats and canoes, navigating a high ropes course, or traversing a zip line — are among the images posted daily.
They also can send one-way e-mails, printed out and delivered to the bunkhouse with the daily mail and just one option for campers to reply: a handwritten letter home.
“The phone changes the very nature of camp,” Netherwood says. “During a separation from their parents, children learn they can survive and actually thrive. . . . It’s a great time of growth and independence.”
At Camp Rotary, a sleepover camp in Boxford for girls and boys 7 to 15, no phones are allowed during the one-week sessions, but parents are invited to send one-way e-mails, and every day the camp posts photos on Bunk1, a social media platform that allows parents to follow their kids’ adventures.
“We’ve always had a policy of no phone contact with the outside,” says Rich Cowdell, a middle school Spanish teacher in Peabody who will be marking his 30th year at the camp, and his 27th as director. “Most parents abide. A few still try to sneak [a phone] into the luggage.”
Cowdell says Camp Rotary, which offers traditional programs such as archery, camping, sailing, and sports, has worked to educate parents about the no-phone rule, impressing on them what children gain in independence and self-confidence when they spend a week untethered.
“I think the whole idea of face-to-face interaction, being able to socialize and appreciate what’s around you — not in virtual reality, but in true relationships — sitting at the table with friends, singing songs, chants, cheers [is key],” Cowdell says.
Saugus resident Graceann Cirame has been surprised by how easily her son, Joe, 14, a ninth-grader at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, gives up his phone before leaving for Camp Rotary, where for the past several years he has attended three one-week sessions.
“On the weekends, when he came home to do laundry, he’d look at it and then give it right back,’ Cirame says. He didn’t have a hard time. . . . That’s the rule at camp. My rules are different.”
Still, parents worry.
The first time Peabody resident Stephanie Clayman sent her son Zachary, now 10, to camp, a six-night stay at Camp Rotary, she was concerned that he would get homesick. He did, but not for long.
“On the first day, we had a nature hike. If I had my phone, I would have found a rock and sat down and started using it,” says Zachary, who’s eager to assure other kids they can handle a week without a phone.
“It will be OK. Parents write letters, and you’re so busy having fun you won’t be thinking about home,” he says.
Phones aren’t allowed at Camp Runels, a sleepover camp in Pelham, N.H., run by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. But even before cellphones, calls home weren’t permitted.
“As a kid, my parents said ‘good-bye’ and picked me up at the end of the week,” says Leshay, the Bedford teacher who returns to Camp Runels for her ninth season as director this summer. “There was no instant connection.”
These days, a camp Facebook page gives parents a glimpse of their child’s week, and one-way e-mails from home ease the transition.
For younger girls and their parents, it’s more of a challenge.
Bedford resident Sue Turner says it takes a few days for her to adjust after she drops off her daughter, Sabrina, 12, at Camp Runels. But after six summers and with a seventh approaching, Turner, who is also a Girl Scout troop leader, is certain the moratorium on phones is a gift to both of them.
“She started at 6. She’d just finished first grade,” says Turner of Sabrina’s first experience, a two-night stay at camp. “I cried when I dropped her off. It was really hard. She cried when I picked her up because she didn’t want to leave.”
Hattie Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.