Summer sleepaway camp is a beloved yearly tradition for kids across the country. But going to such a summer camp with your family? That's a newer idea, and an awesome one for getting families together for low-tech, old-fashioned fun and fresh air. Last summer, my children (then 4 and 7), my husband, and I left bustling Philadelphia and headed to rural Virginia for several days of "Family Camp." We swam, we saw fireworks, we met other families, we hung out. It was an almost entirely tech-free time that left us rejuvenated and reconnected with nature, and the experience even taught me some surprising things about my own family. Here are 10 things I learned at our summer sleepaway adventure.
1. Campfires are better than video games.
My kids have had the same screen time rules since they stopped napping around the age of four: 1/2 hour after school (or midday in the summer) and 1/2 hour before bed. This amount works well for us generally, but they have definitely come to expect to have those times each day, and family camp was a perfect opportunity to see how they did without any screen time. The answer: pretty well! Both kids asked once or twice about “video time” (and I admit that we brought a portable DVD player in case of emergency!), but they were so busy playing tennis, going swimming in the lake, and getting to stay up past their bedtime for campfires or other nighttime activities, the lack of screen time hardly seemed a sacrifice.
2. Camp is a great place for parents and kids to get out of their comfort zone.
I don’t think I’m alone in that my summer days generally get filled up with the same activities: cooking, exercising, working, going on outings with my kids, maybe hanging out with friends or the hubs after the kids are in bed. There doesn’t feel like there’s so much time or opportunity to try new things or rediscover old passions. Camp offered a great incentive for me to step out of the routine. My son wanted to learn archery, an activity I used to love when I was his age. Although I hadn’t picked up a bow and arrow in over 20 years, I loved re-learning the skills and precision needed. Getting to see my son’s pride whenever he got anywhere near the bulls’ eye was a thrill for both of us. This year, I’m trying horseback riding with my daughter.
3. My kids can survive cafeteria food.
I’m not a short order cook by any means, but I do generally choose foods that I know my kids will actually eat. My son will try almost anything, but my daughter is a much choosier eater. Add in our various dietary and lifestyle choices ( including gluten-free and vegetarian), and I was a little concerned that we might go hungry some meals. Luckily, the food prepared by the kitchen staff was pretty amazing, and there were enough choices between the hot, prepared foods and the salad bar that we could always cobble together a meal. Both kids tried some dishes that aren’t in my repertoire, and both were more flexible than I had anticipated when the offerings weren’t up their alley. One thing that didn’t change: my son’s tradition of getting whatever he is eating all over his face.
Photo by Chris Adamus
4. I am on my phone more than I realized.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I was really surprised by how much time my face is apparently in front of a screen every day. I made the conscious decision to unplug for the four days we were at camp and left my phone turned off and back in the cabin, only checking it once or twice during that entire time. It took me a day or so to get used to a) not having it in my pocket and b) not freaking out when I realized it wasn’t in my pocket and thinking that I dropped it somewhere. Phones today are so multipurpose, and I often use it to snap quick pics of my kids, so not having that little camera around also took some adjustments on my part. I realized how often I check email or social media sites when there is even a moment’s downtime, so leaving my phone in the cabin was a great exercise in being present and showing me just how often I rely on my phone. Unlike “real” life, when almost everyone seems to have their phones glued to their hands or ears, phones were a rare sighting at family camp (even for the teenagers)!
5. My kids realize I am on my phone a lot, even if I try to hide how much I use it.
I didn’t tell my kids that I was leaving my phone in the cabin (or my computer back at home), but on the last day as we were packing up, my daughter said, “Mom, where’s your phone? I haven’t seen you looking at your phone in a long time.” Busted! Although I try to limit how much my kids see me on my phone and computer and often work before they wake up or after they have gone to bed, clearly they witness me using them for everything from getting directions and following up on work-related issues (necessary) to getting a quick adult fix of information and “conversation” on my favorite blogs. This was an awakening to how my kids really are watching us all.the.time.
6. Relaxation during a family vacation is actually possible.
Both my husband and I got to turn “off” while we were at family camp, in the most positive way possible. Without having to buy groceries, fix or clean things around the house, work, even think about when and where we are going to eat next, we actually got to hang out with each other and relax. We travel often, and most of the trips we take require a lot of pre-planning and then deciding about which activities to do and sights to take in. At family camp, we just showed up and went with the flow. It wasn’t the most romantic vacation (see: sleeping in separate bunk beds with no air conditioning in Virginia heat in August), but it was strengthening in other ways!
7. Being an observer is okay until you feel comfortable to join in.
Although we knew one other family who was attending camp and our kids had played together once before, there were dozens of families we had never met before. Many of those families return year after year as a camp tradition, and they were very welcoming to new families like ours. I’m a former camp counselor and an extrovert so meeting new people isn’t intimidating for me. My husband and kids, however, like to dip their toes in the social waters before going for a swim. Everyone ended up making new friends and absolutely loving the camp experience (and the kids asked if we could go back to family camp the following year before we even left the camp grounds), but letting my family adjust on their own time frame was a good lesson in family and social dynamics. The experience also empowered my kids to feel safe navigating an entirely new environment since my husband and I were right there.
8. Downtime is important for everyone, even if your kids are post-nap phase.
Honestly, the camp activities kept us pretty busy from early in the day until late at night, but there were a few periods and rest times that were unscheduled. Sometimes we played ping pong, other times we rested in the cabin or read books or visited with our new friends. Kids are so super scheduled these days (even during summer “vacation”); I feel firmly that being bored and resorting to play pretend or making a sheet fort with bunk beds is an important part of both being creative and growing up. And, unlike at home, when I often switch into “Activities Director” mode and come up with some craft project to make or errand to run, I was content to let my kids work out the “What should we do now?” issue on their own. And most of the time, they were able to come up with a game to play with each other. I may have even closed my eyes for a 3 minute power nap one afternoon.
9. Family camp is a perfect opportunity to temporarily switch up our parenting roles.
My husband is a wonderful, capable, involved parent, but I am undeniably the default, go-to parent. During the course of the camp, my kids witnessed how much fun Daddy is (and that he is much better at rowing a canoe than Mommy). He typically works 80-100 hour weeks, so the opportunity to have him around all day every day with no distractions was pretty special. This bond was a great self-esteem booster for my husband too, whose busy schedule occasionally means having to miss out on my kids’ special events. We all loved that he could be there to offer encouragement, support, and just general daddy silliness. And I loved that while he took the kids to certain activities, I got to take a few yoga classes. Whether you are the default parent or your partner is, the point is that you can switch up your roles on vacation.
10. A little positive peer pressure can go a long way.
Peer pressure often has negative connotations, but I witnessed how positive peer pressure can really encourage kids to try new things and become braver than they thought possible. My kids generally approach risky activities with a heavy dose of caution, which is obviously a good thing — but sometimes I feel that they miss out on certain activities because they are scared of even trying them. My kids first watched as the other campers and counselors climbed the ropes course, ziplined into the lake from a high perch, and performed in front of a crowd of spectators. Seeing their peers and slightly older versions taking on these challenges made them seem less scary and more possible for my kids. As their parent, I want them to be safe (of course!), but I also realized that I play a tremendous role in empowering them to think they can try something new or conversely, contributing to their “play-it-safe” mentality. So when my son decided he was going to try the zipline, I simply added my voice to all the others cheering for him (and pretended like my heart wasn’t caught in my throat until he safely landed). We all left camp tired, happy, satisfied with our first year family camp adventures, and ready to sign up for another year.