Unplugging Naturally

By Lavinia Schoene

“No, I can't just turn it off—it’s my emotional-support phone.”

Hilary B. Price of the newspaper comic strip “Rhymes with Orange” hit home with this line as a passenger faces off with a flight attendant with a peeved look on her face. Surely, a leading dilemma for our age is how we are going to manage the increasing reliance on our devices, knowing the addictive quality and apparent detrimental effect on our attention span. And for camp directors, how do we deal with the myriad issues that arrive alongside these devices?

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At the Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in West Virginia, staff members stand by our policy that campers do not bring electronics to camp. Being a small nature camp, Burgundy probably has it easier than other programs. Children and teens attend for the purpose of experiencing the real, natural world; they have the cold winter months to settle for the poor second choice of virtual, video versions of the great outdoors. Campers prefer the direct sensation of muddy, slimy salamanders wriggling through their fingers.

Playing It Safe
Yet, even for us, an unplugged community no longer succeeds without effort. Parents want to know they can reach their children at any moment. Insurance companies and basic risk management demand we make reasonable use of available tools to keep everyone safe. Campers are accustomed to the instant entertainment provided by social media, games, and music.

For the adult world, the camp has made some easy compromises. As director, I answer parent emails daily. For parents of younger children, I provide a “call-in” time for them to make any inquiries. While we do not put children on the phone (so they can adjust to life away from home), I address any concerns. On hikes and backpacking trips, staff members carry cell phones, even in areas where there is no signal. Ringers are silent for short hikes and phones are turned off (to maintain charge) on longer trips, with guidelines about checking for messages. On permission forms, we include the caveat that backpackers may be without cell service.

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Group Time
We provide a banquet of activities in structured times, but also coach campers in their use of free time—in groups or alone. Without the stimulation provided by devices, campers discover the rich resources within themselves and each other.

Throughout the day, we provide interactions and entertainment in which the only resource is ourselves:

We’ll turn any announcement into a short skit. Stuffed into one side of the staff lounge is a costume shelf, and one colorful skirt can be astonishingly versatile.

It’s potentially a shock to give up the non-stop music, so we make our own. We are not musicians, but at meals and around a fire, we'll try anything that can be sung by a group. Our expanding song sheet collection ranges from Pete Seeger to Otis Redding to They Might Be Giants to Katy Perry. What we lack in skill, we make up for with enthusiasm.

Folklore Night is a favorite, done to honor the Appalachian region. The staff members learn relevant stories, jokes, and songs, sharing them alone or with campers who have practiced for the occasion. In multiple ways, it echoes the pre-digital age.

At bedtime, we read aloud from books chosen by the campers. Even the 15-year-olds love it.

Free To Explore
It is almost the definition of a summer camp to have appealing structured activities, and most of us live overscheduled lives. What we have deliberately included in this program are chunks of social free time and time spent alone. About 20 years ago, we noticed that some campers didn’t know what to do with themselves, and we took a more active role in free time, although it may appear as if interactions with staff members occur spontaneously. They respond to campers’ requests, but are required to be available at free time, and much of what goes on emanates from staff planning:

During staff training, small groups share ideas and generate lists for open-ended activities that might last 15 to 60 minutes.

We also review the art of mealtime conversation, sources for interesting topics, and inclusionary approaches.

The campers make exuberant use of the suggestion box, and staff members fulfill whatever they can.

Staff members regularly announce a few options that will be available at the next free time, and campers join in with requests: “Will someone be able to supervise fishing?” or “Is anyone interested in Ultimate Frisbee?”

During sessions with smaller children, staff members plan on a roster in the staff lounge what will be offered, assuring there is a good variety of options.

We include options that require nothing but themselves and the natural world—resources that will be available to campers for the rest of their lives—e.g., bird-watching, deer-tracking, weather predicting, or just a walk down the road.

Flying Solo
Time spent alone is underrated. Anne Morrow Lindbergh said it best in Gift from the Sea. These are her prescient words from 1955:

“We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen ... When the noise stops, there is no inner music to take its place. We must re-learn to be alone.”

For this reason, each day includes reflections: a half hour outside at a spot of one’s choosing—alone, silent, and sedentary. All staff members participate and are visible in the more popular spots. There to reinforce the rules, and help out with any first-aid issue, we are also role models. We demonstrate ways to use the time: writing, sketching, reading, but also bringing a hand lens or binoculars. But this part of the day is supported by a number of other efforts included in the program.

We may have single-handedly kept the post office alive. Denied email and texts, we stuff the mailbox and eagerly greet delivery. A popular free-time activity is creating stationery, envelopes, and postcards for our own use.

A key element of nature workshops is learning to observe. A first step in the scientific method, it is also a quality-of-life skill: if we know how to look, what to listen for, and remember to pay attention to smells, there is a great deal more entertainment in what may look like a passive landscape.

We include solo walks in each session. The exercise is simple: choose an easy-to-follow trail. One staff member leads off. After that person is out of sight, send the first camper, and continue in that pattern, interspersing campers and staff members. The rule is that, if in need of help or in doubt about where to go, sit down and wait. It’s a safe, mild challenge for those not accustomed to spending time outdoors alone.

Another simple evening activity is Zen Gardening. A small group spreads out, sits down, and weeds. Working deliberately and quietly, some feel awkward at first in the shared silence. By the end of the 15 required minutes, no one wants to stop, and on the walk back up, everyone describes the surprising sense of peace and accomplishment.

Does our system work? A few years ago, a former camper shared this with me:

“I went on a two-week backpacking pre-orientation trip at Duke, where we did what they called a ’solo.’ We were given a little spot in the forest with just water, our sleeping bags, and a pen and paper. We were supposed to stay there for two days. I didn’t know until the end of the two days that everyone else in my hiking group had given up after 24 hours or so. I loved the experience, and I just slept, played with sticks, and wrote letters to people. I felt like I was on an extended reflections time at Burgundy.”

Lavinia Schoene is the Director for Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in West Virginia. Reach her at vinis@burgundyfarm.org.