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“Today’s children are communicating through texting and social media—I call it truncated conversations,” says Tom Riddleberger, owner and director of Campus Kids, a weekday overnight camp in Blairstown. “Because there’s no personal technology at camp, children are having complete conversations when around the table for a meal, sitting around the campfire or in the bunk at night. Campers see people’s faces and body language and are held responsible for what they say because the consequences play out right in front of us. Counselors are able to guide children, help resolve conflicts and help them understand they’re in relationships with other people.”
Camp gives children plenty of time for unstructured play. Playing develops emotional, social and cognitive skills, which give kids the tools they need to succeed in an innovative, fast-paced world, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It used to be that children would just play outside after school and only go home when it got dark or they got hungry. Now children are so scheduled with gymnastics on Monday, soccer on Tuesday and religious school on Wednesday that just playing and the essence of being a kid has been lost,” says Charles Maltzman, owner and director of Willow Lake Day Camp in Lake Hopatcong. “Part of what we try to accomplish and incorporate into each day is for kids to have time to play. We create a safe environment and provide unstructured time within the schedule for campers to be on the playground, pet animals in nature or play on the beach. Sometimes campers look at us and say, ‘what do you mean you aren’t going to tell us what to do with the LEGOs?’”
Just by being at camp, a child is gaining independence away from his parents and learning to make decisions on his own. “Our program is built around camper choice. Each camper chooses their own activities for the next day, which is a great practice lab for allowing children to make their own decisions,” Riddleberger says. “It also teaches them about following through. If you sign up for ceramics one day, you need to go back a few times to finish a project. Or if you sign up to be in a sports tournament, you have to be part of the team for more than one day.”
“Today’s children are constantly on their screens and aren’t interacting with each other as they did in the past. This is an obstacle to forming friendships,” says Maltzman. “Our camp doesn’t have computers, photography or robotics for campers. We feel children get these things other times during the year, and prefer hands-on interaction that promotes relating with others, such as the ropes course, cooking, mining for fossils or nature, where they watch chicks hatch. These activities are used as tools for making memories and forming friendships.”
Camp is a collaborative environment where campers and staff work together as part of a community, whether on the field playing a sport or cleaning the bunk after breakfast. “Artificial intelligence will never replace the ability to work with other people and collaborate,” says Riddleberger. “At home and at school, children can decide who to be friends with and if you don’t want to be friends with someone, you can isolate them—but that’s not okay at camp. Children are living with people who might be different from themselves and learning how to get along even when there are differences. Collaboration is a skill you have to learn by practicing and observing.”
—Jess Michaels is the Director of Communications for the American Camp Association (ACA), NY and NJ, a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the summer camp experience. Parents looking for free, one-on-one advice when searching for a camp can contact Renee Flax at email@example.com.