Have you ever gone anywhere without your cell phone? It can be a very freeing experience. The trouble is that we have come to depend on our phones as lifelines. If you’re an adult, you can probably remember what it was like before cell phones populated the world. If you’re a child, chances are you can’t even imagine this.

Before cell phones, most of us didn’t talk to our parents on the phone that much. We spent the day at school, maybe followed by an after-school job, and then we all caught up when we met at home for dinner. If we were out somewhere, like the mall, and had to call home, we searched for a dime or a quarter so we could call from a pay phone.

Camp Staff Is Your Mode of Communication

I don’t actually have too many memories of phone conversations with my parents from my childhood. However, there is one phone call I remember vividly. It was when I went to a one-week overnight camp at age 13, and I got to call home. I was having a terrific time, but as soon as I heard my mother’s voice, I had to choke back the tears. My description of all the fun at camp clearly didn’t match the emotional tone of my voice.

Now that I am the assistant director of an overnight camp, that memory resonates with me every time I try to reassure parents about our phone call policy. We don’t allow cell phones. We don’t allow campers to call home. And we don’t let them have computer access. I explain to parents that both they and their child will benefit from letting go for a bit. Sometimes this is received well, other times with apprehension.

We used to allow campers to call home halfway through each of our two-week sessions. If a child was already homesick, they usually got upset as expected. The surprising thing was that many campers who were doing fine before the phone call were teary-eyed by the time they hung up. Our counselors begged us to put an end to the phone calls and we finally obliged.

We fully respect parents’ concerns. They can call our camp and talk to us to find out how their child is doing. We’ll even have a counselor call back with more details if needed. Yet within this controlled environment, the parent and child get to taste independence and even savor it for a short while.

Kids Rediscover Instincts to Socialize

Do you know what happens when kids don’t have cell phones, can’t use a computer and can’t tune out the world with headphones? They make friends! They learn to look one another in the eye and talk and laugh and cry together. They learn how to read social cues, a challenge for many kids today. They manage to solve their own problems, sometimes with the guidance of a camp counselor or friend. And at the end of the day, they sit around a blazing campfire singing corny songs that will remind them of their camp friends forever.

Planting the Seeds

When parents come to pick their children up from camp, we’re very proud to put on a final showcase displaying all the skills the kids learned in the activities. However, after the applause dies down, we ask the parents to look deeper into the being they entrusted to us. The hidden treasures of camp will reveal themselves at home as their child continues to blossom and grow socially.

Summer camp has always been about friendships and independence, but in this day and age, technology is king, and meaningful socialization sometimes takes a backseat. Spending time away from home unplugged is more critical than ever. Camp offers a unique opportunity for children and teens to not only have some old-fashioned fun, but to boost their self-confidence by honing their real-time social skills. Truly an experience not to be missed!

5 Tips to Help Prepare Your Kids to Unplug at Summer Camp

1. Limit cell phone use on school nights.

2. Start having unplugged weekends a few months before camp begins.

3. Designate one night on the weekend as a board game night.

4. Encourage your child to handle important or emotional conversations in person.

5. Be sure to “walk the walk” by practicing what you preach as a good role model.

Candy Cohn submitted from Maine Arts Camp, a non-competitive overnight arts camp for 9- to 16-year-olds in Unity, Maine.