Loading My Kid’s iPhone for Sleepaway Camp

How I approached giving my son a boost with tech.

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Amanda Bindel, Toca Magazine Writer
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Sleepaway camp can be a difficult adjustment, so I’d like to share some specific ways I used an old iPhone without cellular connectivity to ease my introverted son’s transition. I loaded it with a variety of both what I hoped would be social icebreakers and what I was confident would be useful soothers of frayed nerves.

Social Buffers

  • Games

I allowed select video games ensuring he had a mix of popular titles at which he is very good but balanced those with digitized board and card games, especially pass-and-play titles like STRATEGERY.

I also made sure he had games that were hot or going to be, but that were not necessarily up his alley, so that other kids would have fun when they got a turn with the iPhone. That was the point — to begin with anyway. I wanted the iPhone to act as a metaphoric hot spot that drew console-and-cable-starved kids like a magnet.

  • Playlists

I also put together some music playlists for my son. I included songs I know he has always loved, family favorites and songs he’d picked on his own, but my son — being my son — didn’t have a single chart topper in his library. For headphone time his music was great, but I also went to a music streaming service that allows offline saving (Slacker Radio Premium is a great choice for this because once cached offline the playlists stay functional for a long time without needing refreshing). I downloaded and saved playlists of summer hits from pop, hip-hop and other genres neither he nor I would normally listen to but a lot of kids his age and a bit older would likely be listening to.

Geek Gear

That was the extent to which I saw the iPhone as a social buffer, but I was also aware that I could arm him with a battalion of geek gear and he would still be who he is — a kid who is fun and funny, creative and enjoyable to be with, but a kid who shies away from big groups, doesn’t like to participate in many core camp activities, and feels an overwhelming need for solitude after a day or more of nonstop social stimulation.

For that I used smartphone features that are available for almost all mobile platforms.

  • Photos

I used the photo album and loaded it up with pictures of home, family, pets, and even pictures of his room and his “stuff.”

  • Relaxation apps

Then I went to the app store and downloaded a couple of relaxation apps — one we used regularly to practice Pranayama (an Eastern breathing technique that eases stress and anxiety and promotes mental and physical health) — and an app that allows you to combine different ambient sounds like rain, a heart beat, a crackling fire or any other white noise, along with loops of soothing music to help him get to sleep or just decompress.

  • Notes for messages

I used the native Notes app to write him a bunch of messages. I wrote some generic messages just telling him how much I love and miss him, and telling him how proud he makes me. I also included notes for specific occasions and situations —  one I titled “Read me on the worst day ever” and another “Read me on the best day ever” knowing he’d have several of both.

The key here was keeping the notes vague enough to fit any occasion yet specific enough so that he felt like I was speaking to him about something he is actively struggling with or celebrating. For example, one small Post-It-style note I left was simply “Remember, don’t judge your insides by other people’s outsides” to remind him there were other homesick kids besides him, some of whom just hid it better.

  • Voice Memo

I also made use of the Voice Memo feature, and at summer’s end my son told me that’s what helped him most. I owe my inspiration here to my late father. He used to make up these wonderful bedtime stories for my sister and me but he also traveled a lot for business. I don’t know exactly when he started doing it, but at some point he got into the habit of plugging a clunky old-school mic that screeched feedback as often as it recorded voices into his console-stereo and popping a shiny new cassette into the deck. Each night that he was away my sister and I would listen to that night’s installment.

He passed away shortly thereafter, but we still have copies of him not just telling us bedtime stories, but also messages just for us; for each night he was to be absent he would record something like “Today is Wednesday, and Lisa, I know you had a piano lesson so I hope it went well. Kiss your mom and sister for me.” I don’t have to tell you how those tapes became posthumous treasure, but long before that we loved having his voice with us when we were apart for even a few days.

I’m not a storyteller, but as you’ve likely noticed I’m a wordy girl, so I riffed on my father’s theme while looking at the camp calendar. If I knew something was going to happen like a canoe trip or theme day, I’d label a voice memo encouraging him to participate or asking him how it went. I made him voice recordings encouraging him to tough it out for homesick days, comforting him for hurt feelings and hurt body parts, and celebrating different types of successes.

Another year

As we head into our fourth year at the same camp my son’s expectations are aligned with the experience he’s going to have for worse and very much for better. His iPhone is still something he’s glad to have, but as he acclimates more each year he needs it — and my intervention — less and less.

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