The Gift of Presence: A Tech-Free Summer

By Betsy Tomlinson & Sue McMullan

Pediatricians warn us, our friends’ Facebook posts remind us, and The New York Times gives us the dire evidence: screen time is destroying the next generation. And yet, there are great educational tools in technology. We also hear how important it is that our children learn to use it. We see schools using iPads in the classroom, even in kindergarten. So what is a parent to do? How do we find a balance? Are we willing to give up tracking our children with “Find my Friends”? How many times a day do you and your children text each other? In short, how do we balance the ways that technology is useful in our children’s lives with the well-documented dangers?

One of the greatest gifts of a traditional summer camp is the opportunity to unplug. Parents don’t need to spend the summer prying the devices from our children’s hands and begging them to go outside and play. Instead, imagine that your children are a part of a community where ALL interactions are face-to-face. Imagine your child jumping into a clear blue lake and splashing with friends, never pausing to post to Instagram or wondering whether her friends are doing something more fun. Picture your son playing cards with a young adult role model who genuinely listens to what he has to say. Imagine your child sitting still, listening to the loon’s call and pausing to enjoy nature, or cracking up over some silly joke with friends.

Of course, summer camps teach activities and campers learn every day. They return from camp full of new skills: they can stern a canoe, they have a fierce backhand, they canter on a horse, they weave a basket or swim across the lake. More and more summer programs focus on skill development: your daughter can go to lacrosse camp one week and coding camp the next. We know that it takes many ingredients for our children to become productive and self-confident individuals. Playing on a sports team, acting in a school theater production, and academic success all play a role. But children need more than “hard skills” if they are going to become mature, fully formed human beings.

A summer camp experience can be the transformative place to prepare our children to care for themselves in an equally important way – in just a few weeks, they learn about who they are or who they want to be, how they go about making healthy decisions, and how to use their voices in an emotionally safe place before they have to cope with making huge decisions in their everyday lives.

How do we do all that at camp? At traditional summer camps, campers and counselors of all ages sit together for three meals a day. They learn to communicate and they learn to listen. At camp, most children arrive and don’t know anyone. They learn to make new friends. When they have free time, they learn to entertain themselves by reading, writing or playing games with friends. They entertain their imaginations. They sit by the lake and watch the sunset in silence. They form an identity that is separate from their home lives. They gain confidence from being independent. They realize that they can survive without technology and that camp gives the gift of time in a simpler world.

What does this feel like from a parent’s perspective?

Camp parent, Alford Lake Camp alumna, and Managing Editor of the Boston Globe, Jennifer Peter, reflected, “Maybe it’s something we should all try, if it wouldn’t get us fired. Three weeks of ‘screenlessness’. Though just writing that made my heart rate rise a little. Would that mean I couldn’t listen to podcasts and audiobooks during my commute? (I access those things through a screen, but I don’t need to be on a screen to enjoy them. Exemption, right?) Would I have to sit at meetings and actually just listen to the people speaking without simultaneously checking to see if a story had been filed or an email had been received? And maybe, the overnight camp test is not fair. Arguably, it’s a lot easier to forget about screens when you’re in a place of abundant beauty, surrounded by wholesome girls who have also agreed to give up screens for the summer, swimming and sailing and reading books by flashlight. Maybe it’s too much to imagine shutting off the screen amid the hubbub of everyday life. But maybe — be still my heart — we should try.”

Alford Lake Camp’s philosophy is based on some very important parenting priorities, especially the immeasurable value of giving your child the empowerment of positive self-esteem and self-image in a world that challenges these traits every day. ALC is a place that teaches girls what it takes to be happy, healthy, and productive individuals.

Betsy Tomlinson, Director of Communications and Technology and Sue McMullan, Director, Alford Lake Camp.

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