More than 14 million children and adults attend camp every year, according to the American Camp Association. Crafts, campfires, and color war are still a staple of the camp world, but like all other industries, summer camps are changing along with the times.
As you're considering activities for your own child this summer, think about whether they need a digital de-tox or whether a good dose of sun, swimming, and silliness will ultimately benefit them more in the long-term. Some programs are a healthy blend of community and code. Choose wisely.
Unpluggers and Character-Builders
Chronic stress, due to the use of technology, peer pressures, parental involvement, and exposure to violence, is taking its toll on children. Stress can even hinder brain and body development among kids.
Although every parent wants his or her child to grow up to be independent and successful, you need to decide whether no tech or life skills programming is best for them over the summer. Jill Tipograph, Founder/Director of Everything Summer and Co-Founder of Early Stage Careers, advises parents on how to make the right choices. She says, "Kids today are more self-aware of their needs; some have goals and passions, others do not yet, and others clearly feel they need downtime. All are right." She continues, "If students are truly burnt out by academia, a jam-packed schedule and/or social media, a break in the summer will prove wise; unplugging, doing something physical or that involves creativity and/or the outdoors."
The Traditional Character-Building Camps
Most traditional camps are building cultures of unplugging and prohibit campers from bringing devices into the summer environment, so they can focus on socialization, experiencing nature, and learning new soft skills -- which many employers say are sadly lacking among new graduates.
At Breezemont Day Camp in Armonk, New York every child age three to 12 will take yoga class once a week and three social workers are on staff to address any camper or staff issues.
Some camps, like Southwoods in Upstate New York, have a no-technology policy for younger children but have built leadership and career skills into their programming for older campers, who go on college campus tours, tour the Albany Capitol and meet a lobbyist, work with a recruiter on writing cover letters and resumes, and attend Disney College in Florida to develop customer service skills.
The Non-Stop Experience Camps
From circus acts and age-appropriate concert experiences to game shows to pop-up planetariums to Etsy-worthy handcrafts to exotic field trips -- camps are incorporating "wow" moments into their programming. Especially because many kids are being weaned off their phones over the summer, camp directors are replacing virtual experiences with real life ones.
But some kids and parents just can't (or won't) separate from the digital world. Or, your child or teen may simply thrive on STEM rather than swim. Code Kingdom brings pop-up coding programs to camps across the U.S., using Minecraft and Roblox as their teaching tools. Kids with learning challenges and on the autism spectrum are developing long-term job skills at programs like The Harbour School, where drones, 3D printing, and video game design are a core part of the summer.
Behind the Scenes
Both traditional and specialty camps have updated their operations to incorporate automation. Even working as a camp counselor these days involves more sophisticated training. Distance learning via videos (called ExpertOnline Training) is hosted by 30 professionals and covers topics ranging from safe touch to homesickness.
Technologies are also being applied to smoother camp management and parent communications. At Breezemont every counselor has an iPad to reference daily programs and changes and take attendance.
Many parents suffer from separation anxiety when their kids go off to camp. Facial recognition is being used by new company Waldo (which raised $5M in seed funding) to select and text parents photos of just their own children.
"Do you have a lake or a pool?" used to be the standard question parents asked camp directors when selecting a summer program. Now you have to decide whether you and your kids would be better off learning about the outdoors and real-world social connections, getting more summer screen time, or some combination. Ask questions too about how training and communications are being managed.
If you want your child to experience the summer the same way generations of campers did in the pre-Internet era, those options still live on too. The 'smore and lanyard are not dead yet!