Once upon a time not so long ago, notes like the one above were delivered by snail mail and were the only form of communication between a sleep-away camper and her parents. But with modern technology — most notably cellphones — along with evolving expectations, parents and kids are accustomed to being permanently connected, and local camps are learning to adjust.
According to Camp JCA Shalom director Joel Charnick, the incursion of technology started eight or nine years ago, when campers began arriving at the Malibu camp with digital cameras and Game Boys. Suddenly, camp policies and handbooks had to be updated to address which gadgets were allowed and which forbidden.
Many veteran camp administrators admit that their gut reaction to the influx of iPods, MP3 players, Kindles and Nintendo DS systems was to ban all electronics outright.
“Everything that camp stands for is, in many ways, anti-technology: connecting with people, getting back to simplicity and nature,” said Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. But, she added, “In recent years, we realized we can’t ignore it anymore. We’ve realized maybe we can even find ways for it to serve us in positive ways without opening the floodgates of technology, without losing what camp is about.”
One way to do this is through social media. “When the summer is over, we employ technology and social media more and more as a method for kids — as well as alumni and parents — to connect meaningfully with one another and be part of the Alonim community year-round,” Camp Alonim director Josh Levine wrote in an email. Many camps, including Alonim, in Simi Valley, have a strong Facebook presence. A quick visit to its page reveals questions such as, “My favorite Israeli dance at Camp Alonim is ________,” and recurring entries such as Throwback Thursday feature pictures of current staffers as young campers.
One of the biggest changes camps have made involves posting pictures of campers on their websites nearly every day, so parents can go online and get an idea of what their child is doing.
“We post well over 20,000 photos every summer,” said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, which has a large camper population from Southern California. Camp Newman also posts videos several times a week, “anything from [campers] climbing a tower, to a friendship circle, [to] singing, to a sports activity,” Arquilevich said. “Like any service organization, it’s about being customer-service oriented and meeting people where they’re at, and evolving with the times.”
The practice has greatly decreased the number of phone calls Arquilevich receives from worried parents. “We used to get 100 phone calls a day from anxious parents,” he said. “Now we can get 10.” But it is not without its headaches.
For starters, there is the added expense of hiring designated photographers. “Last year, we hired two people to take pictures of the kids,” said Rabbi Kenny Pollack, camp director at Moshava Malibu. “Sometimes a kid might not be in a picture for three straight days. Then you get a phone call. Or a picture comes out and the kid is not smiling, so the parent calls or emails. This is part of the new age of doing business. It’s challenging. … It’s a whole operation just to make sure every kid is in the pictures every few days.”
Another significant development is the way parents are able to communicate with their kids. Many camps allow parents and loved ones to send emails to their children, often for a small fee. (Kids have to respond by snail mail, however.)
JCA Shalom, for instance, prints out 400 to 500 emails a day, which are then delivered to campers. “It’s a lot of work,” Charnick admits. But it’s a “value added for parents.”
For those who see this practice as somehow un-camp-like and who would prefer to go back to the old days of the occasional letter or care package via the U.S. Postal Service, Peterseil said, “You can’t ask a parent to be this kind of parent for 10 months and [a different] kind of parent for two months.”
Furthermore, nearly everybody seems to be in agreement that the separation process is harder for parents than it is for kids. Giving parents an easy way to communicate with their sons and daughters probably eases the adults’ anxiety.“Kids are having the time of their lives. Parents are just missing their kids,” Charnick said.
One thing that camps are saying a resounding “no” to is campers bringing cellphones. “One of the greatest gifts of camp is for kids to become independent from their parents and parents to become independent from their kids,” Arquilevich said. “We certainly don’t want kids to be able to call home. For the most part, camps are automatically protected because they don’t have cell range.”
But Arquilevich thinks the days of cellphone-free camp might be numbered. “It may be five or 10 years away from now. This is something I am not happy about. But I would not be surprised if the parent market demands that. It will challenge us to continue preserving the sanctity of camp while embracing technology.”
And how do campers feel about leaving their cellphones and laptops at home?
“Before camp, they think it’s going to be the worst thing ever,” Charnick said. So overwhelming is the prospect, in fact, that every year a few campers try to sneak them in. (JCA Shalom is not alone in experiencing this problem.)
Yet, Charnick added, “If you were to ask the kids mid-session how they feel about not having their phones,” they will tell you, “They love the break. They are having nonstop interaction with people. It trumps Facebook. It trumps Instagram.
“So many great things happen when they do disconnect. There’s nothing in the world that can replace the friendships that are created in real-life interactions. Team building doesn’t exist in the virtual world. Kids can’t do a ropes course. Gaming is not a substitute for sports or the lessons learned in sports, the trials and tribulations. You can’t live in a community in a virtual setting. Learning to disagree with each other, learning to work through their problems, is different than sending someone a text.” [t]