Not Unplugged at Camp: My Kid Took an iPhone to Sleepaway Camp, and Here’s Why

Anticipating some social hiccups, I explored how tech might help.

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Amanda Bindel, Toca Magazine Writer
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My son, who will be entering sixth grade this fall, is heading off to his fourth summer at sleepaway camp. For the last few years, he’s been attending three-week sessions at a camp in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, nestled into an idyllic little French-Canadian village. While he’s now a seasoned veteran eager to offer tips to new campers, when he went for the first summer I anticipated some hiccups.

It was the summer before my son’s ninth birthday when we decided to give sleepaway camp a try. Although he was content with hanging at our local pool for the summer, I wanted him to also have some structured recreation and a more social environment, as our suburb tends to be semi-abandoned during the summer months.

While convincing him with slideshows and YouTube videos of broadly smiling kids sporting tans despite layers of sunblock and rashguards, skimming behind speeding motor boats during “tubing,” learning to drive golf carts, and engaged in costumed theme days was easy, equipping him with the social skills he’d need to navigate this still-foreign environment wasn’t going to be so simple.

The challenges of an introverted kid

Be it nature or nurture, like both his parents my son is an introvert — quick with a smile and eager to make friends, but not altogether adept at it. His interests don’t run to “traditional” boy activities such that are venerated in suburbia and summer camps across the continent like soccer, hockey on a floor or ice rink, or, well, any organized sport really. He’d as soon play video games or make his own video in furtherance of his lifelong ambition to become a movie director and video game commentator.

Like his mom and his dad, my son is a dyed-in-the-wool geek — and we’re all proud of it. He has favored Doctor Who (a show he discovered with no parental prompting) to whatever airs on either regular or kid-centric TV since he’s been old enough to navigate Netflix, which is a skill one gleans early in my home; he would just as soon float away dreaming of new zombie-movie plots than participate in any swim race — even if swimming is his self-proclaimed favorite activity.

Like his mom and his dad, my son is a dyed-in-the-wool geek — and we’re all proud of it.

Tech as part of the solution

When selling the notion of camp I may have had time-warping goggles on, but when I thought back to my own experiences at similar camps at my son’s age and younger I knew I’d had a rough time adjusting. Year after year I’d attend for almost a full eight weeks — and reliably earn “most improved” camper at the awards dinner. Before you’re overly impressed note that depending on the year and camp that sometimes meant a momentous a climb from screaming and crying every day to only doing so twice a week.

But since everyone remarks on how much like me my son is, I tried to think about what would have helped way back in the 1970s when I was facing the same social hurdles, and use my experience and his strengths to help him have the best possible experience in this new millennium. I even knew tech was going to be part of the solution, but exactly what sort of tech, or even how to prepare him wasn’t as simple as sending him off with a Nintendo DS.

Camp’s flexibility with tech

First I have to credit the camp for being extraordinarily flexible, and its current director is also pretty tech savvy — enough that I have come to consider him a “Facebook friend.” I shared my concerns with him and inquired as to the camp’s policy regarding anything digital. He had already sussed out what I did for a living (since spamming those same Facebook friends is how I’ve acquired a quarter of my readership!) so I don’t think he was surprised when I asked if I could send my son with an iSomething.

In this case the camp’s policy was clear and predetermined, but before you use my story as a leaping off point for prepping your kid for camp, make sure you know your camp’s policy on same. For my son’s camp, iPads are verboten for campers as are iPhones or any smartphone with cellular connectivity. But an iPod touch was OK as long as I understood the odds of it returning home in even passable condition were more remote than the camp’s location. I got the OK to send an old iPhone without a SIM card, which is essentially the same thing. I loaded it with all sorts of stuff and used the device as social collateral leveraged against his having fun — and it worked!

Eagerly anticipating camp

That said, while my iPhone tricks helped in many ways, they certainly aren’t responsible for the eager anticipation he already feels for this upcoming summer. That I owe to an incredible camp and human nature. With each passing summer, as he rises in rank and gets a slightly later lights-out time, he feels more connected to the camp and by now the camp’s administration is well acquainted with him and his somewhat neurotic, if well intended mum.

My son has built a love for the place that will grow as his social skills and prefrontal cortex do. What are now still temporary friends will make way to Facebook friends (and friends wherever kids hide on social media and in real life where parents aren’t lurking) and all too soon taking the subway or driving across town to see friends won’t be a hurdle either. I’m confident he’ll continue to attend for many summers to come because like his school and our neighborhood pool on good days — and even on bad ones — his camp has become a home away from home, as it ought to be.

Would you send your kid to camp with a mobile device? On Thursday, find out what the author loaded her son’s iPhone with to help him get through homesickness and social awkwardness. 

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