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Unplugging the iPod: Can little Stacey survive summer camp without WiFi?

Check your tech at the door.

That’s the motto of many summer camps in the Baltimore metropolitan area whose directors seek to focus on the sights and sounds of Mother Nature over the jangle from an iPod or the digital chase of a Grand Theft Auto game.

As summer camp registrations open, campers and their parents or guardians are made aware of the tech ban, an effort to unplug teens from their daily gigs of texting, cell phone calls, video gaming and Wi-Fi long enough to establish an old-fashioned sense of nature/nurture contact.

“The advantage is just to be able to build relationships and friendships with other kids without the distraction of music blaring in your ears, a text message or taking a phone call,” said Joe Antonio, summer camp manager at NorthBay (page tktk), a sprawling campsite in North East, Md. along the shores of the Elk Neck and Northeast rivers where hundreds of youths age 7 through 16 gather each summer.

Antonio said campers who do bring cell phones have them confiscated and locked away until the $900-per-week camp is over. He said some of the campers protest while others go through a mild form of tech withdrawal, but most understand.

Different mindset

“For some, it’s like yanking a part of their body off,” he said. “But it’s a way to clear your mind of the clutter and to fully enjoy not being tied down to all those things.”

John Enny, community liaison for the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Center, located in Leakin Park in west Baltimore, said middle and high school students who attend Outward Bound camps often complain, but then appreciate the focus on nature.

Outward Bound was co-founded in 1941 by Kurt Hahn, who believed that people could experience personal growth from self-denial. The camp was designed to give seamen skills to survive severe conditions at sea by teaching persistence and self-awareness.

Decades later, Enny said, those lessons still hold, except they now include denying tech toys to young people. The results, he explained, are manifest.

“We believe it’s really important to disconnect,” Enny said. “There’s a noticeable change from when students get back in their perspective of what the natural world is and in their understanding of how ingrained electronics can be in their lives and how they are taken for granted.

“I think it opens up a new world of opportunities for young people to realize our natural resources are something to be appreciated, enjoyed and cared for.”

Into the wilderness

At Outward Bound, campers are offered different wilderness expeditions that vary in length. Taking a cell phone on a kayaking expedition, or taking an iPod into the woods of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Park in the Monongahela National Forest in eastern West Virginia or along the Appalachian Trail, Enny said, would defeat the purpose.

“They are living outside and carrying all necessities with them,” Enny said. “And we teach to them our values of compassion, integrity, excellence, inclusion and diversity.”

He said those values couldn’t be learned through high-tech devices — “unless you come out with an Outward Bound video game.”

In Monkton, Camp Puh’Tok (page tktkt) offers hundreds of youth an unplugged summer camp experience on its 67-acre wooded campus. Only in an emergency (read: rainy day) are campers offered a movie, said director Alexi Kousouris.

Plugged out

“When you come to a camp such as ours, we don’t allow cell phones or video games,” Kousouris said. “It forces you to make those personal connections to develop community — skills that can get lost when you are plugged in.”

Camp Puh’Tok, Native American for “in the pines,” offers one-week and two-week sleepaway camps for youth as well as day camps. Activities include swimming, horseback riding, archery, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing and arts and crafts. Television is banned, as are all cell phones for campers. The camp’s advertisement this year even calls on parents to unplug their children to send them away for an organic, natural camping experience.

“They get acclimated,” Kousouris said. “They are excited and they seem energized and more connected to people and the environment, the counselors and other campers. You really notice it in the second week. We have a good number of kids who come back year after year.”

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