Relief from the Burden

One of the great things about the 4-week session at camp is that it gives us all more time to spend just hanging out with each other. It happens all the time: groups of girls casually sitting in the shade, chatting, working on a friendship bracelet tied to their water bottle. Between activities, before meals when we all have about an hour of unscheduled time, after dinner, and throughout the day: camp life provides an uninterrupted flow of friendly conversation. It’s a true luxury to enjoy spending time like this with the amazing people at Rockbrook.

Joining one of these impromptu groups is really pleasant too. The girls are so breezy and nice, curious and excited, silly and funny much of the time. I love asking the group questions and hearing what’s on their minds. For example, I recently asked a few campers what they love about Rockbrook that’s different from home. There are lots of answers to this question, and I believe it’s those differences that help explain why girls love camp. Many of the answers you might expect: “My camp friends… they know the real me,” “There’s so many fun things to do here,” “I love the food at camp.” One group of teenage campers surprised me when one said, “I like not having my phone,” and all the others chimed in agreeing. Teenage girls who happily give up using their smartphone? It’s a bit hard to believe, isn’t it?

You might expect the opposite, that the girls at camp are missing their phones, that they can’t wait to return to their Instagram accounts, Snapchat streaks, and Twitter followers. But it’s not true.  Back home though, we’ve all seen it. Their lives revolve around their smartphones, using them for daily communication, socializing and entertainment.  We’ve also seen this technology use effectively rule their lives, with teen girls spending an average of 9 hours per day on their phone, according to one study. Being constantly drawn to those little screens is a powerful force that we all deal with. As this sculpture “Absorbed by Light” portrays, our communication devices are effectively isolating us and distorting what we know about the world and feel about ourselves.

rockbrook camp girls

So why is camp different? If girls are happy to not use their phone here, why not at home too? That’s exactly what I asked the girls. They said at camp there’s simply no need for a phone. The authentic days of camp make any mediating device unnecessary. Here the community provides plenty of socializing, face-to-face communication, and rich real-world entertainment everyday.  People here have lots of free time, but are never bored because there are friends all around, always engaging things to do available, and no pressure to perform a certain way.  At home, unfortunately, all of this is less true, and their smartphones are used to fill the gap.

What’s amazing is that the girls recognize all of this. Living here at camp in this technology-free community has demonstrated for them that their smartphones, while convenient and perhaps even necessary in modern life, are also a burden.  They feel a real sense of relief giving them up and not needing them. They welcome reclaiming those 9 hours per day, freeing themselves to enjoy all that camp offers. These Rockbrook girls love camp because they feel fulfilled without needing their phones.

At home, where the tight-knit community of camp is absent, the challenge is to find a healthy balance between using our phones and the kind of real-world, fully-engaging experience I think we all crave. The challenge is to structure our time, identifying when using technology is a benefit and when it is distancing us from what we really want and need. The luxury of camp life is not available all year long, after all that’s why we love camp and return to it every summer, but we can recognize what it provides and with this awareness, implement elements of it more broadly.

Your Rockbrook girls are taking great strides in that direction, and we should all be very proud!

summer camp girl dancers

Face to Face Living

pottery camper at summer camp

The other day I was talking with a young counselor about camp and whether there was anything about the experience this summer that has surprised her. She had attended camp for 7 years as a camper already, so I was curious if she recognized anything different now that she’s older. She quickly said that she was having a blast with the campers in her cabin, and that she loves being a counselor because she gets to know the girls so well and do so much with them. She was surprised how “intense,” “emotional,” and “fun” camp is.

Put a little differently, life at camp is face to face living. We’re all in this together, sharing everything (costumes, food, pink eye —well, we try not to share that last one!). When we’re at camp we pay attention to each other constantly. We are very close, feel truly connected, to a lot of people. Being at Rockbrook means accepting the intimacy, thrills and challenges of community… but in exchange, building countless heart-felt relationships, deepening our humanity, and yes, having  a lot of “fun.”

By making this observation, I think this young woman, without knowing it, was also commenting on ordinary life outside of camp. Essentially, it lacks the closeness, the rich, personal experience that defines our days at girls camp Rockbrook. Ordinary American life, generally speaking, is more about individual consumption, privacy, personal advancement, and ego-centric entertainment— all while being mostly blind to the other people around us. As we speed along the course of our lives, tightly tethered to our smartphones, community is too often left in the dust. Feeling dis-connected, bored and alone, can easily be the sad remainder.

Painting Girl at summer camp

There’s an irony to this, too. Think of all the daily technology we utilize ostensibly to be more connected to each other: text messaging, emails, social media posts, and telephone calls. Thanks to modern communication technology, it’s simple to announce what you’re doing, ask someone a question, or look up information. The ease and convenience of using these technologies has made them ubiquitous threads of modern life. At the same time— and here is the irony —it seems they are isolating us as human beings. Sending a text message is a thin gruel compared to the deep feelings that accompany being present with someone you care about. An email conveys only a shadow of its sender. Facebook, despite its attempt to offer a “multimedia experience,” can’t touch the emotions of being with supportive friends. There’s no electronic translation for kindness. If our ordinary lives are increasingly defined by these diminished forms of communication, if we’re left with only these rarefied connections to other people, then, as we become more isolated, our humanity is going to suffer.

Thank goodness for camp! Here we feel more connected than ever despite (maybe because of) giving up our electronic communication devices. For good reason, we unplug to connect more fully to those around us. Life at camp feels good because it begins with wholehearted connections, with the messy and rewarding energy of a community. The contentment your girls feel at camp springs from living face to face, directly and without the filtering “convenience” of technology. It’s providing them proof that having kind, compassionate relationships with other people is a bumpy, fun path to a rich and rewarding life.

camp girl friends

No “App for That” Here

Camp Rafting Kids Jubilant

It’s a common policy for summer camps to ban electronic devices used for entertainment like portable video players, games, Internet devices, and most any kind of flickering screen. And Rockbrook is no exception. While we do allow campers to have personal music players for use during rest hour, we don’t want our girls to be “plugged in” while at camp. For us, taking a break from technology is an important part of camp life. In fact, we believe powering down all the screens, eschewing all those apps, can make a profound impact on the girls at Rockbrook.

You might think that summer camps are only recalling the simpler life of earlier days, that we are akin to Neo-Luddites, rejecting modern technology in the name of tradition. Camps have always represented a return to nature, a trip to the wild-er-ness out and away from civilization, and this meant giving up certain modern conveniences. Given how many things at summer camp are described as a “tradition” —the closing campfire, the songs, even something mundane like the arrangement of different age groups in camp, for example —it is possible that some camps factor out technology, at least initially, because they want to preserve the tradition of “not needing all that.”

Camp Girls CLimbing and Goofy

Fueling that sentiment is the rapid acceleration of technology in our modern lives. As new alluring technologies arrive making life more convenient and efficient, summer camps proudly serve as a refuge from the “digital age.” Most parents already have a hunch that their kids spend too much time consuming electronic media (One study showed an average of more than 50 hours per week!), so camps are happy to provide a break from “all that,” just as they’ve always done. But beyond the benefits of a traditional simple life, what do camp girls really gain from avoiding their electronic gadgets for a few weeks?

I’ve mentioned a couple important benefits before, namely that camp proves how turning off your technology makes life richer and more fun. It provides first hand evidence that engaging all of what camp offers— the real friendships, the physical activity, and the chances to explore and discover the natural world —actually doing things (stimulating and utilizing all our senses), outshines the flat electronic entertainment of even the best smartphone. It’s a lesson we hope can be carried home and applied in the face of boredom.

Kid By the creek making a basket

In addition, though, there is new research suggesting that modern technological shortcuts, digital communication, and electronic entertainment can be detrimental to youth development. In their book, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, 2013), Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, argue that being “app-dependent” can adversely affect young people’s developing sense of identity, their ability to become close to other people, and their creative powers.  Drawing on the well-known work of Erik Erickson and his stages of psychosocial development, this book raises concern that technology, while certainly enabling in important ways, can too easily become a crutch, thereby stunting the development of these crucial human skills.  Kids need time to work out who they are in relationship with the world. They need diverse opportunities to meet and interact with other people, to get to know and appreciate them. Young people crave fresh experiences, and thrive when they can solve problems and feel the satisfaction of a creative achievement.

Excitement and Fun of Cold Mountain Water

Gardner and Davis are presenting a cultural critique, issuing a warning that when children have easy and pervasive access to computer and phone apps, their fundamental human development is impaired.

Thankfully, there is camp. There is a place without apps and without technological shortcuts to communication. There is Rockbrook with all is natural beauty, ripe with unexpected opportunities to discover something new and experience it intimately— to really feel it, to get both lungs full of its smell. There is a community like this where the people care for each other, laugh and play together, and are enthusiastically creative.  Rockbrook encourages girls to explore who they really are, to be their true selves, and provides just the right environment to then form really deep friendships. Just look at the photos in this post, and you’ll see what I mean.

Unplugging from technology at camp— There’s no “app for that” here —doesn’t make all this happen, but if we allowed girls access to their screens, we’d undermine our goal to help them grow personally, socially, and imaginatively.  Quite intentionally, and for really good reasons, camp is a haven from all that.

camp builds girls confidence

Camp Inclinations

Girl reading book during rest hour at summer camp

For some, perhaps mostly for counselors, a favorite part of our daily schedule is rest hour. This is a time when, after lunch and after checking for letters and emails in our mailboxes, we all go back to bed for an hour. Yes, literally, we ask all the campers to climb into their bunk and do something quiet. This might be to write a letter, draw, read, listen to music through headphones, or actually take a nap. When girls first arrive at camp and are generally more rested, they might think rest hour is an unnecessary break in the action of camp. But we know that the pace around here— all the climbing, riding, swimming, shooting, singing and dancing —requires a great deal of energy, and that getting enough rest really helps. Rest hour is a long Rockbrook tradition that’s easily explained; everyone is happier, and ordinarily healthier, when rested. The wide-open pace of camp life almost requires a siesta, no matter how brief.

Camp kid and newt

Rest Hour, indeed all of camp, is not however an opportunity for “screen time.” As you know, we don’t want our girls watching TV or movies, playing video games, or connecting to the internet while they are at Rockbrook. In addition to the fact that most kids already spend too much time consuming electronic media (one study showed an average of 53 hours per week!), we hope that by turning off these alluring gadgets, taking an extended break from this technology, your girls will make an important realization while they’re here. We want them to recognize, maybe even be energized by the fact, that there’s a lot more to life than what’s presented to them electronically.  Life, especially one lived outside, close to nature and within a supportive community, is so much more rich, so much more fun, than what Facebook, Instagram, or any other part of the Internet can communicate. Camp is that kind of life. It provides daily proof that being with great people (friends with feelings) and actually doing things (stimulating and utilizing all our senses) trumps a flickering screen every time. If flipping on the power switch of something electronic is often our modern remedy for boredom, we hope Rockbrook will inspire your girls to be more human than that, and equip them with more “real world” inclinations.

Little camp girls ready for canoeing

Both canoes and kayaks were maneuvering the lake today as a full roster of girls signed up for our “Paddling” activity. Every age group is  interested these days, partly I think because several river canoe trips have gone out and come back with great stories to tell, and learning the basic strokes at the lake is a prerequisite for an out-of-camp paddling trip. With fine instruction and equipment to use, it’s so satisfying for the girls to guide their boats more accurately through the water, and later on the river trips, to steer around obstacles, catch eddies, and ferry across moving water.

Tonight’s evening program brought back an old camp favorite, a “Counselor Hunt.” This is a game that challenges every cabin group to comb the camp together and find hidden counselors. Adding a little imagination to the game, this time the counselors dressed as aliens, each creating a crazy, colorful alien character.

Camp kids hunt for aliens

This made the game an “Alien Hunt,” with groups of girls capturing aliens and returning them to our spaceship (the dining hall). The aliens hid all over camp, and after an hour of urgent searching— faster hunting meant finding more aliens —we all found out what mysterious prize each alien would award the cabin that found her. It was a fun group game with everyone winning some kind of prize in the end.

Hunting Aliens at Summer camp

All Together

moving camp trunk by wagon

The excitement around here exploded today as we welcomed our June Mini Session campers to Rockbrook. Ninety Four girls, about half of who are new to camp, joined the full session girls who arrived last week bringing the camp to completely full. After a few stops to see the medical team (pediatrician, nurses, and “head check” specialists) and office folks, and after taking some time to peruse the latest RBC gear, the new girls and their counselors could begin moving into their cabins. “Top bunk or bottom bunk?” and “Where should I keep my trunk?” are the most immediate questions to answer, but it doesn’t take long to make beds, arrange a stuffed animal or two, or maybe hang a small photo or poster to make these old (many almost 100 year-old) cabins feel cozy. Meeting your new cabin mates is another fun part of this process. It feels so good to have everyone here at last. Now the dining hall will be extra loud when everyone is singing, the activity classes will include more friends to talk with, the free swim periods (one before lunch and another before dinner) at the lake will be more of an event.

Camp girls cheering

A little after noon, everyone gathered on the grassy hill at the center of camp, and under the shade of the big walnut tree heard Sarah, the other directors and the Line Heads (counselors in charge of each age group) introduce themselves and announce the plans for the rest of the day. The Hi-Up campers (10th graders) led everyone in several songs, and then we gathered into groups to take State photographs. It was fun to see that Florida and Georgia were the two largest groups, the there were girls and counselors representing many other states, like Massachusetts, Colorado and even California. Lunch was fantastic. Rick had for us, his homemade barbeque chicken (or tempeh), a cheese grits casserole, and fresh steamed broccoli, as well as our deluxe salad bars which he stocked with other vegetables, fruits and sandwhich spreads. This was true comfort food, perfect for our first full meal together. And, it was devoured!

Campers making bracelets on the porch

A brief note about technology at camp… As you know, we strive to teach our campers the value of slowing down a little, reconnecting to the natural world and to the people around us. We believe that “unplugging,” taking a break from the flicker of television, phone, and computer screens, really helps girls get more out of camp. This can be a little difficult at first, especially it seems for the teenagers (I once saw a camper actually kiss her iPhone as she said “goodbye” to it on opening day.) but it only takes a day or two of camp life, of experiencing the satisfying feeling of it, to realize that fully engaging the world is so much better than the virtual abstractions technology offers. That’s a great lesson.

Camp kids smiling before swim test

We were fortunate to be able to hold our swimming demonstrations for the new campers after lunch and before the weather turned on us. There were only a couple of cabins who couldn’t squeeze in their demos before the rain, and we’ll take care of theirs tomorrow. We also were able to have our afternoon scavenger hunt that sent the girls all over the camp to visit a dozen or so activity areas and to meet the instructors. There were skits and games to perform at each station, and at some, snacks like fruit and goldfish kept everyone energized. This was all in preparation for the girls signing up for their first set of scheduled activities later in the evening, and for tomorrow’s action.

Keep those cards, letters and emails coming!  We love mail at camp!

All Their Senses

Kids Outdoor Senses

“I worry about how much time my kids spend looking at a screen.”

We’ve heard this more than once recently, perhaps not so surprisingly when you consider how many electronic screens are part of our lives these days. For our kids too, in addition to television, there are cellphones, computers, tablet computers, ebook readers and hand-held video games. Screens are everywhere, even in our pockets! With this kind of availability and often unlimited access to technology, we now see that the average 8-18 year old child in America is spending 53 hours per week consuming electronic media.

We’ve discussed before the value of unplugging from technology and how camp gets kids out of the virtual world of screens and into the actual world of nature. Camp turns off the screens and gets kids actually doing things instead of just watching.

It’s worth underlining another benefit to turning off the screens. It’s the simple fact that by getting kids outside and giving them lots of fun things to do, they stimulate and utilize all their senses. They feel things— mist in the morning, hear things— owls at night, smell things— galax along the trail, and even taste things— s’mores (!), that can’t come from a screen. By bringing all of their senses into play, instead of just their eyes and ears, kids activate and develop their brains in important ways that can enrich their future experiences.

This is another way camp really matters to kids. It’s fun in creative, imaginative, and sensuous ways. It’s stimulating in the best sense.

Unplugging at Camp

Kids Enjoy Summer Crafts without Technology

Spotted a nice article about summer camp in the American Way Magazine. It’s called “Summer, Unplugged.” The author, Winston Ross, interviews several camp directors and camp kids to find out what’s so attractive about being at camp. There’s a lot of good stuff to read, so you should go check it out.

One thing that stood out for me, was the discussion about technology and how camp is so nice because it doesn’t have cell phones, video games, television and the Internet. Campers admit that it’s really tough to give that stuff up at first, but once they settle in at camp, they appreciate being “unplugged.” One girl put it this way.

“It’s kind of like a symbolic way of stepping out of the real world,” she says. “It allows me to take off from home, leave my worries, thoughts about college, and stress behind. I just go escape.”

Turning off your technology allows you to really engage all of what camp offers— the real friendships, the physical activity, and the chances to explore and discover the natural world. Instead of being entertained by a flickering screen, you get to create a fun time with your friends. You get to actually do really cool things instead of just sitting around “watching” something. …Take off your shoes, soak ’em in the creek, and let’s make a basket.

When you think about it, there’s a lot more to life, to being human, than “facebooking,” text messaging, and watching “reality” TV. These days, it takes a real effort to get past all of that so you can exercise those more important parts of who you are. Camp is special place to help with that effort. It’s perfect for reminding you that life is more fun in the real world.