Hello Camp, Good-bye Technology: Staff Adjustment to a Low-Tech Summer

Summer at camp in Maine means many new experiences: new friends, first-time activities, living away from home. For campers, it also means leaving devices like phones and computers at home. But staff members also have an adjustment when it comes to technology. While their summers at camp aren’t completely device-free, staff members experience a marked – and, in many cases, ultimately welcome – reduction in screen time. For young adults in their late teens and early 20s, accustomed to socialization via text and social media, working at camp presents adjustments beyond living in cabins, teaching and guiding youngsters, and collaborating with fellow staff.  Low-tech summers, camp directors say, can present challenges for staff members used to having a phone at the ready and the comfort of a social life at their fingertips.

One camp director, Garth Altenburg, was for many years at the helm of Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset. He is now director of Camp Timanous, a boys’ camp in Raymond, where he will serve his first summer come June. Altenburg says staff actually have more difficulty than campers adjusting to camps’ technology policies.

“Sometimes we get some pushback,” he says, but that reaction “is really a barometer of how well acclimated” staff members are to the camp setting. International staff often find the transition particularly difficult, he says. Cultural differences and distance from home can make it “harder to peel them off their phone.”

But Altenburg says those difficulties “say to me, we’re not integrating them as well as we’d like.”

At Maine Teen Camp in Porter, Director Matt Pines says a variety of rules limit staff use of phones. Counselors may not use phones in front of campers, nor at mealtimes. They may use phones in the staff lounge during free time. Pines says if staff members use their phone in an unapproved place or manner, they receive a warning. A second warning means the staff member “is kicked off the wifi network for a day and has to ask permission to join.” If there is a repeat offense after that, the staff member loses wifi privileges.

“For most staff, the idea of being cut off is pretty powerful,” Pines says.

But Pines says counselors do have the privilege of using their phones to plug into speakers in their cabins and play music for campers. “We’re totally on board with it,” he says.

Peter Kassen and his wife, Meg, direct another coed camp, Hidden Valley Camp, located near Freedom. Peter Kassen says that while some staff members are able to immerse themselves in camp life, and therefore detach from technology smoothly, others “find it hard.” They may be new to camp, or have attachments or situations outside camp.

“Their sense of intimacy extends outside the bubble of camp,” he says.

Kassen says as directors they accept these variations, and seek to “be very explicit in explaining to staff what intense community life means.”

A former counselor recently told him that staff members of this generation need to hear more than a “no phones” rule, Kassen says. Rather, staff need to hear “‘here are ways humans have been communicating for many years.’” That former counselor suggested that teaching staff to establish that same type of connection is key.

Hidden Valley Camp staff are permitted to use phones during off-time, in the staff cabin, Kassen say, and they receive guidance about how to “marry outside life” with camp. Pre-camp communications include suggestions that staff prepare for changed relationships with people outside camp, along with a range of other advisories.

But while staff members come to camp knowing their technology use will be different, “I don’t think they fully know until they experience it,” he says.

Yet at the end of the summer, staff members often “love” their much-reduced technology experience, Kassen says. Indeed, communication to staff about cell phone use includes this quote:

“I went virtually all summer without checking my facebook or e-mail. I cannot tell you what a relief that was. It sounds like a trivial detail but I think it’s a testament to the fact that I was really ‘present’ in the moment, with all my energy focused on connecting with my campers and co-workers.”

In Belgrade, at girls Camp Runoia, staff also struggle to put down their phones. Director Alex Jackson says staff may use phones during their free time in a designated staff area, but she says administrators took a “hard core” approach last summer to eliminate unauthorized use.

By enforcing the no phones policy more firmly, including with administrative staff, all staff ended up “relieved,” Jackson says.

Young adults undoubtedly rely on phones and technology to a degree — and level of dependence — that is unprecedented. And yet camps seek to teach healthy communication skills and build relationships in a manner that heavy reliance on texting and online interaction prevents. Kids arrive at camp and immerse themselves in activities and socialization, making their separation from devices less challenging. Yet the value to staff of putting down phones — immersing themselves in what Peter Kassen calls the “bubble” of camp — can be profound. Camp directors know first hand how change outside camp influences change inside. Through communication, compassion, and a commitment to their communities, camp directors are collaborating with their staff to face the challenges and reap the rewards of a low-tech summer experience.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.