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North Hills Monthly

Campers Unplug to Plug Into New Experiences

Apr 02, 2017 12:05PM ● By Beth Gavaghan

Sewickley Academy

Linus of the cartoon strip Peanuts has his blanket; and for some summer campers, today’s security blanket is a cell phone. And just as Linus is not ready to part with his blanket, some kids–or often their adults–have difficulty letting go of technology. But unplugging is important, especially at camp.

“One of the main purposes of summer camp is to build relationships,” said Todd Brinkman, vice president of youth development for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, which encompasses three campgrounds and 16 YMCA locations, including the Baierl Family YMCA in Sewickley and North Boroughs YMCA in the Avalon-Bellevue area. 

Kids need face-to-face contact, Brinkman said, adding that the fact that America has a National Day of Unplugging—it was March 4, by the way—says a lot.

In a typical summer, about 17,000 kids from kindergarten through high school attend the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh’s 21 day camps and three overnight camps. The organization has had a no-electronics policy for about five years, Brinkman said, adding most campers seem to enjoy being off the grid. Sometimes, it is the parents who have the problem. He mentioned a parent who hid a cell phone in her child’s sock. “It becomes a security blanket for mom,” he said.

Besides eliminating the threat of losing or breaking expensive devices, unplugging frees YMCA campers to embrace the camp experience. Overscheduled kids have the chance to make their own decisions, whether to canoe, explore the arts or simply watch the clouds. Campers also choose what they eat and take responsibility for maintaining their camp area, which helps to build life skills and character.

“They really do exceed your expectations when you give them the chance,” Brinkman said.

Brian Perry, director of Camp Cranberry in Cranberry Township, said restricting electronics encourages kids to pursue activities, such as physical education and the arts, which are being limited by school districts because of funding. “I think that as long as we are putting together a program that can give our campers safe, fun and memorable experiences, they can enjoy the benefits of technology at other opportunities,” he said. 

Many parents use camp as day care, Perry noted, adding that sometimes they desire direct contact with their camper, so a camp cell phone is available for that. As for kids who are especially attached to their phones, he said, “It is like a safety blanket for them in environments where they’re not comfortable.”

While Camp Cranberry participants are encouraged to leave electronics at home, Perry said for campers who do bring devices, limited use is allowed during drop-off, pick-up and lunchtime.

Camp Cranberry offers five weeklong day camps that vary from sports to theme camps for children ages 3 through 12, with counselor-in-training programs for kids ages 13 to 15. Between 70 and 90 kids are expected to participate each week of this year’s 13-week program.

At Sewickley Academy, the traditional camp experience is not offered, but rather weeklong academic, athletic and arts programs that range from one-and-a-half to seven hours in duration for participants 4 to 18 years old. Many programs are challenging and aimed at earning credits, getting a jumpstart on the coming school year or improving skills. Not surprisingly, the electronics policy follows that of the school. Cell phone use is prohibited for lower and middle school students, while “mindful” use is encouraged among senior high students. About 350 children participate.

Nataliya Di Domenico, Sewickley Academy director of summer programs, said the electronics policy is what families have come to expect. "Our programs are focused on engaging students in exciting activities, leaving very little time to use electronics for entertainment or personal purposes,” she said.

Like Brinkman and Perry, Lynn Sanborne, school counselor at Sewickley Academy, characterizes cell phones as security blankets, adding that they help in dealing with the changing family experience.

Prohibiting electronics seems to be common in overnight camps, Sanborne noted.

“You have to engage in the whole experience. At overnight camp, kids not only get away from parents but also from friendships at home. They are placed in novel situations, like being on the top bunk with someone under them that they don’t know,” she said. Kids need to learn how to get through difficult moments, such as being homesick, without technology.

Indeed, summer is a time to embrace new experiences, whether that be learning a new skill or simply watching the clouds. To do so unplugged is healthy. Camp is a time for Linus to drop the blanket—at least for a little while.