Kids Unplugged: Summer Camps Ban Electronics

Jul 2, 2013
Originally published on July 1, 2013 5:31 pm

A decade ago, many summer camps nationwide started instituting a no-tech policy, banning cellphones, pagers and electronic games.

Camp Manitou-Lin in Middleville, Mich., had just started banning electronics at the start of summer in 2003.

Back then, 11-year-old Michael Lake of Grand Rapids was not so enthusiastic about the new policy. "I live on my Game Boy. When I get home, I'm going to need two packs of batteries," he said.

Cut to 2013, and the Xbox, Instagram, iPhone and iPad. Technology has dramatically changed, and yet some things have stayed the same.

A Change Of Pace

Camp Sloane is set on 270 acres in the foothills of the Berkshires in northwest Connecticut. The campsite has a lake, towering trees and canvas tents held up by wooden poles.

It also has a no-tech policy.

Sarah Gold, 11, says summer camp is a lot different than her life in Manhattan.

"So, you're not just, like, texting, or playing little games on your phone or on your iPad. You can actually interact," she says.

Paul "Bear" Bryant, Camp Sloane's executive director, says summer camp is all about making human connections.

"That's the whole point of coming here, anyway; that's the way we look at it, and it's hard to do that when you're staring at a screen; it's hard to do that when [you've] got earphones in and you're not listening to people talk," he says.

Still, they occasionally find contraband. Program director Adam Janaway points to the cabinet where they keep all the banned devices.

"I've got two cellphones already," he says. "I've got an iPod as well."

Unplugged Campers, Plugged-In Staff

The camp makes sure the kids stay busy with lots of activities, such as mountain biking, sailing and fishing.

But while gadgets are banned from camp, behind the scenes there's a different story.

Camp Sloane actually depends a lot on technology and computers: Its data is backed up on a cloud, and they have a Facebook page.

Last year, the camp invested thousands of dollars in a high-tech underwater locator system to prevent drowning. It's one of only three camps in the world to have it. Campers put on a plastic headband, which is detected by an underwater antenna using a frequency. Once the headband is underwater for 20 seconds, a light goes off onshore. Ten seconds later, it starts to beep.

Camps are trying everything they can to attract campers and their parents, and these tech-savvy touches help.

At Camp Sloane, Bryant says technology will be used to enhance safety and the experiences of campers, but that won't apply to cellphones or personal entertainment devices anytime soon.

'It's Worth It'

Nine-year-old Adrian Shirzadi of Providence, R.I., says he misses his gadgets — especially his iPad.

But camp is worth it, he says, "because you get to make new friends, explore nature and see a bunch of new animals, like turtles."

He'll also be busy the next two weeks playing tennis, mountain biking and, he hopes, learning to build a fire.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A decade ago, many summer camps started instituting a no-tech policy - cell phones, pagers and electronic games were banned. Back then, Kaomi Goetz of member station WSHU reported on the ban. Well, now, we sent her back to camp to see what's changed.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: It was the start of summer in 2003 and Camp Manitou-Lin in Michigan had just started banning electronics. I went there and talked to some of the campers back then. Eleven-year-old Michael Lake of Grand Rapids isn't so sure he likes the new policy.

MICHAEL LAKE: I live on my Game Boy. When I get back home, then I'm going to need two packs of batteries.

GOETZ: Cut to 2013.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Xbox...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Instagram...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: iPad.

GOETZ: And the iPhone. Technology has dramatically changed, and yet, some things have stayed the same. Eleven-year-old Sarah Gold is at Camp Sloane. It's set on 270 acres in the foothills of the Berkshires in western Connecticut. There's a lake, towering trees and canvas tents held up by wooden poles. She says life is a lot different from Manhattan.

SARAH GOLD: So, you're not just like texting or playing little games on your phone or on your iPad. You can actually interact.

GOETZ: Camp Sloane also has a no-tech policy. Paul Bryant, who goes by the name Bear, is the camp's executive director. He says camp is about making human connections.

PAUL BRYANT: That's the whole point of coming here, anyway, that's the way we look at it. And it's hard to do that when you're staring at a screen, it's hard to do that when you got earphones in and you're not listening to people talk.

GOETZ: Still, they do find contraband from time to time. I asked one of the staffers to show me the cabinet where they keep the banned devices.

ADAM JANAWAY: Well, I've got two cell phones already, and here's the second one. I've got an iPod, as well.

GOETZ: The camp makes sure the kids stay busy with lots of activities, like mountain biking, sailing and fishing. But while gadgets are banned from camp, behind the scenes, it's a different story. Camp Sloane actually depends a lot on technology and computers. Its data is backed up on a cloud. They have a Facebook page.

Last year, the camp invested thousands of dollars in a high-tech underwater locator system to prevent drowning. A counselor shows a camper how to strap on the plastic band.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Put this on your head. Bring the floatie down. Pull it nice and tight.

GOETZ: An underwater antenna detects the headband using a frequency. Once underwater for 20 seconds, a light goes off onshore. Then, ten seconds later...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

GOETZ: Camps are trying everything they can to attract campers and these tech-savvy touches help. At Camp Sloane, executive director Bryant says technology will be used to enhance safety and the experiences of campers, but that won't extend to cell phones or personal devices anytime soon. Nine-year-old Adrian Shirzadi of Providence, Rhode Island, is eating a meatball sandwich for lunch. He misses his gadgets, especially his iPad, but says camp is worth it.

ADRIAN SHIRZADI: It's worth it because you get to make new friends, explore nature and see a bunch of new animals like turtles.

GOETZ: He'll also be busy the next two weeks playing tennis and mountain biking, and he hopes, learning to build a fire. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.