Summer Camp: A World You Can’t Simulate

The best day of the year is a child’s first day of camp. The buses roll down the hills and campers new and returning embark on the journey of a summer of endless possibilities. One of the most impactful moments of that day happens when a child hands their phone into the main office at summer camp. Phones have become a security blanket for kids, and for many of us, it’s something that feels like we cannot live without. Our time is filled with seemingly endless scrolling and overstimulation. Handing over the little rectangular device on the first day of camp can feel like a detox. The weight of a phone transferring from your hand to the office lockbox doesn’t feel like half a pound, in fact, depending on the attachment with its user, it can feel unbearable to hand in.

At Wekeela, we are proud to be a camp that does not allow technology or phones for our campers. The requirement of handing in phones is something appreciated by kids whether they feel the impact immediately or if it takes getting it back to realize. While smartphones have changed our world and have improved communication, the bad habits that we’ve formed are inescapable. ‘Doom Scrolling’ and ‘Infinite Scrolling’ are practices that having a few months away from can be really beneficial and healing for our mental health.

Doom Scrolling is when you scroll on articles, games, or social media and spend hours exposed to negative content. It can be draining emotionally for users. Infinite Scrolling is the practice of swiping and scrolling to no end, whether on Snapchat, Instagram Reels or TikTok. Social Media algorithms are crafted by developers to have no end and are designed to keep users going down the rabbit hole. Instagram, for example, used to end when you were caught up on your ‘timeline’ and it ended the intake for the time being. This new format of infinite scrolling, and being coerced to look at other things has led to a deep reliance on scrolling for instant

 gratification. Lighthearted content can lead to overexposure to negative content. Studies have shown that just a few minutes on social media can lead anyone, especially children, to harmful or explicit content and misinformation.

Once campers hand their phones in, they have the opportunity to spend the summer forming genuine connections with others. The ability at a young age to have eye to eye contact and real conversations is a vital soft skill that so many children are not learning these days. Summer camp is a place where children can run around and be themselves, but ultimately learn these important soft skills such as interpersonal (people) skills, communication skills, listening skills, time management, problem-solving, leadership, and empathy. The in-camp experience cannot be replicated, and this was largely impactful when Covid began in 2020.

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the majority of U.S. schools transitioned to virtual learning with Zoom’s emergence. As a camp, we had to plan if we were to open with strict safety protocols in place, or to simply not open Wekeela. Having camp director zoom sessions to discuss the challenges of navigating a pandemic, some camps mentioned running a remote camp online. After deliberating as a Camp team, understanding the State of Maine and CDC protocols, and understanding that opening for 2020 would be a powerful act to give the campers and staff normalcy, we chose to open. The 2020 summer was an incredible experience for everyone after months of  either no or little community interaction. It reminded us how special the camp experience is, and there is no way to run a remote camp on Zoom. Breathing the Maine air, feeling the sun’s glow, having face-to-face connection—these are all unique experiences that cannot be replicated.

Society continues to march towards a virtual or augmented world. In the last few weeks, the Apple Vision Pro has altered the VR landscape in a shocking way. Seeing people cross the street with their heads strapped to a screen just makes the great outdoors that much more valuable. With the emergence of AI technologies and virtual learning/experiences, the world is changing and changing fast. It might seem absurd to link Virtual Reality to summer camp, but the way we see it is that the more our technology comes to the foreground of daily life and communication, the more valuable nature and personal connection becomes. Utilizing the senses that don’t get overstimulated during the school year is all part of the success of a summer camp.

There are benefits to the camp industry with all of the technology we have today, such as keeping the community engaged throughout the year. As early as last decade, campers would receive the email or phone number of a bunkmate and do their best to keep in touch. We do feel that group chats and social media have kept our bunks of campers closer than ever. However, with the challenges facing children and teens online these days, the few weeks of a break during the summer can lead to so many mental, emotional, and social health benefits that cannot be paralleled. We’re all getting excited to hand over our phones on the first day of camp!