Kids using phones outside

Summer Camp Unplugged: How to Help Kids Disconnect from Devices

The rise of technology has made it increasingly challenging for camps to enforce device-free environments. Even so, it will come as no surprise that there are benefits to separating campers from their phones. If your camp is struggling with campers’ dependence on their devices, you’re not alone. One camp director we spoke with reported that nearly 90% of campers arrived with smartphones, despite the camp’s no-phone policy.

In a recent article on this topic, Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan, suggests that a good strategy is “establishing and communicating boundaries before your children start using devices, and sticking to those limits as much as possible.“ Here are a few ways you can take this expert advice and apply it at your camp.

Start at home

In pre-camp communications, educate families and parents about why it’s important for their kids to have device-free time at camp. Emphasize that the experiences they’re paying for provide a unique opportunity for their kids to disconnect from technology, build relationships, and develop important life skills. Remind them that your team is equipped to handle all urgent needs and that a plan is in place should you need to get in touch with them.

Device-free time allows campers to focus on the camp’s surroundings and be fully present in the moment, which can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. When families understand the importance of device-free policies, they not only help their children prepare for these and enjoy camp more, but they also take the pressure off camp staff to be the only enforcers of the rules.

Set device-free times

If you can’t completely detach campers from their phones, you can set specific device-free times. For example, meal times can be designated as device-free. This will help campers engage in conversations with those around them. You can come up with specific questions for them to answer to keep the chatter going. In addition to specific times of day, also consider having a designated device-free day during the week.

If you go this route, make sure to inform campers ahead of time about the device-free day. This gives them time to mentally prepare for the change in routine and adjust their expectations. With advance knowledge, campers will be open to participating in device-free activities. These positive experiences can prove that they don’t need their phones at all times.

During these windows, make sure to pack the time with activities. This could include group games, sports, arts and crafts, or team-building activities. You could even encourage campers to bring their own books, games, and activities to share with their friends.

Lead by example and make group decisions 

Kids often follow the behavior of the adults around them, so it’s important to lead by example. If you and your staff are constantly on your phones, campers are more likely to be as well. By putting your own devices away and engaging in device-free activities, you’ll be setting a good example for your campers.

Along the same lines, involve your campers in the decision-making process by asking for their input on device-free activities and discussing the importance of separating from their phones, even for a short while. This can help them to understand the reasons behind the rules and be more likely to follow them.

Encourage mindfulness

Mindfulness practices can be a helpful tool in setting device-free times at summer camps. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help campers to focus on the present moment and reduce the urge to check their devices. 

This could include morning yoga or meditation sessions, guided breathing exercises, or even just a few minutes of quiet reflection time before meals or at the end of the day. Providing a dedicated space for mindfulness practice, such as a meditation garden or quiet room, can also help to reinforce the importance of these techniques and make them more accessible to campers.

It’s all about connection (with each other, not chargers)

By implementing these strategies, parents and counselors can help campers disconnect from their devices and make the most of their summer camp experience. It’s not an easy task, but the benefits are worth it. Campers can develop social skills, build healthy relationships, and experience all that camp has to offer. You may not be able to get them away from their phones 100 percent of the time, but even small and pre-planned breaks can make a difference.