Why Go Tech Free in a Technological World?

Posted by Carlen Long on Dec 11, 2015 4:20:16 PM


One of our favorite things about resident camp is that it’s almost entirely tech free (for the campers). Instead of being distracted by the buzz and glare of a cell phone screen or TV, kids at camp engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions with everyone they meet. They are running, swimming, climbing, and enjoying the outdoors instead of sitting in front of a computer or Xbox. It’s free play at its finest: allowing kids to be kids and have fun without relying on technology.

However, technology has incredible value in our modern world, and that value is only increasing. We can’t – and don’t – condemn technology as a whole by only citing the well-known negative examples of technology use. Even during camp, camp staff rely on technology to share parent emails with campers, to post photos and stories for parents, to communicate with families and other camps, and to stay up to date on important happenings in the camp world. Technology enables us to do administrative tasks faster and more efficiently than ever before, which gives us more time to spend with the campers.

We truly believe that experiences at summer camp can give children skills they need to succeed throughout life outside of camp as well – oral communication, collaboration, and determination are just a few. But in many schools and jobs, a strong grasp of computing skills certainly gives a student or employee a beneficial edge too.

How do we reconcile these two ideas? That we know our world has an ever-increasing dependence on and need for new technology (for good reason!), but yet we continue to tout “tech free” time as one of the best benefits of summer camp?

Here’s why. What research is proving more and more is that success in college and success in the workplace depend more than ever on social and emotional skills. Through free play at sleepaway camp, kids have the opportunity to engage in creative learning, practice communicating with their peers, understand their friends’ thoughts and feelings, or cooperate at a new game. Summer camp is also uniquely positioned to provide these experiences in a positive way: most of the time, campers want to come to camp, and they end up enjoying giving up their technology for two or three week camp terms.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that preteen children who attended a tech free, outdoor education focused one week summer camp session later scored higher than their peers (who engaged in normal summer use of electronics) on their ability to read nonverbal emotion cues.1 In this case, the benefits of outdoor education and time at summer camp are direct and measurable: campers truly had better social/emotional understanding thanks to their outside play away from electronics.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, expands on the importance of these social and emotional skills in the real world.2 To summarize, he describes in detail what I have mentioned briefly above. Yes, our world relies on technology, and understanding technology is important.

But it’s not the only thing that’s important. More and more, we are finding that since technology can take over so many jobs previously done by people, the remaining jobs require a strong ability to understand, connect, communicate, and empathize with others. Few of those abilities or skills are directly taught by most schools – but they are taught at camp.

Whether directly or indirectly, camp teaches these non-cognitive skills in many different contexts. Almost all the social and emotional skills a child needs in order to be successful show up at camp, hidden in a fun game or a conversation with cabinmates and counselors.

For example, in a free play evening with no event scheduled, I once saw a girl’s cabin host a spa night, graciously and excitedly inviting everyone they know (and everyone they’ve never met!) inside for nail painting and “hot rock” massages (i.e. pebbles left out in the sun). With the opportunity for creative play not often found in a typical home schedule full of school, electronic devices, and extracurriculars, these campers came up with a fun way to make others happy, to share their own excitement, and to reach out fearlessly to old and new friends.

They didn’t have to be sat down and lectured about the importance of being creative and social. But nevertheless, they practiced being just that. Even during scheduled activities, a camper might discover she has talent for communicating clearly and teaching her cabinmate how to shoot a bow and arrow. Or maybe, through the heartfelt, empathetic sharing and bonding that is inevitable around a late-night campfire, a camper might learn to understand and trust his cabinmates and counselors from different cities and countries.

The attraction and value of technology, so rampant in life at school and home, can sometimes diminish these interpersonal opportunities. But that’s what makes camp special and covertly educational: it provides time outside of school for children to practice and develop essential non-cognitive skills.

When camp is over, children can (and should!) use and study technology. It's an incredible asset to our society. Many of you probably know that it’s sometimes impossible to get kids to do anything else these days! But summer campers know they have the ability to live, learn, and play without technology, too. For the reasons I've described above, we think that's pretty special.


1Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior39, 387-392.

2Brooks, D. (2015, September 4). The New Romantics in the Computer Age. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/opinion/david-brooks-the-new-romantics-in-the-computer-age.html?smid=tw-nytdavidbrooks&smtyp=cur&_r=2.


Want more like this? See: http://info.campchampions.com/unplugging-your-kids 

Tags: Parents, skills, growth