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    Emma Berndt

    Emma Berndt is a Senior Advisor at the University of Chicago’s TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health and loves to write about all things parenting. She lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with her husband Eric, and sons Nathan (10) and Jacob (6). 

    Happy Campers: Finding (Screen-free) Fun at Family Camp


    How relatively easy it was for all of us to disconnect from our devices was one of the happy surprises from camp. At home, my boys typically default to watching screens or playing video games during down time. We set screen time limits but then find ourselves having to play screen time police, a role we do not relish. 

    As soon as we arrived at Family Camp in Michigan last summer I started to lose track of time. We had decided to take a family vacation at a kids sleep away summer camp for a few days. Ostensibly it was to introduce our two kids to camp. But I was also curious to experience the classic American summer camp that I had seen in movies like “The Parent Trap” for myself—the kind with cabins and scenic ponds and bonfires around which we’d roast marshmallows and sing camp songs. 

    We arrived at camp a bit late and so we dropped our stuff off in our cabin and headed to dinner at an array of outdoor picnic tables. As we started talking about the next few days and all the activities we wanted to try, I instinctively reached for my phone to check the time. And, I realized I’d left it at the cabin—something that I would do for the rest of family camp. 

    How relatively easy it was for all of us to disconnect from our devices was one of the happy surprises from camp. At home, my boys typically default to watching screens or playing video games during down time. We set screen time limits but then find ourselves having to play screen time police, a role we do not relish. 

    At family camp, the only devices available were the phones my husband and I had brought with us. And, because all meals and activities were already arranged and on-site it was easy to break the habit of constantly checking them. No need to look up directions, make dinner reservations, text the babysitter, or even keep track of time—our days revolved around a loose schedule of participating in various sporty activities, eating meals and, yes, roasting marshmallows around a bonfire! 

    For the boys, the chance to try new things made them forget their devices quickly. When I asked my kids recently whether they had missed their screens at camp my older son replied “it just wasn’t on my mind.” And, it’s true. With so many activities within walking distance of our cabin, we all discovered newfound interests. My younger son discovered his love of archery and spent hours trying to hit a bullseye. And, the boys and I all tried water skiing for the first time– an exhilarating and slightly terrifying experience. At night, we’d all fall into our twin beds exhausted from our active days.

    We also quickly learned that the best way to discover things at camp was to explore. One night, we emerged from our cabin and noticed a number of families heading through a path in the woods that we hadn’t seen before. We decided to follow these families and discovered a shortcut to dinner! This tiny discovery felt huge, like we’d gained inside camper knowledge. And the fact that we’d gained it through our own powers of observation—not our phones—felt so satisfying. 

    With more space from our screens, we all surprised ourselves and each other. My boys invented an imaginary game, incomprehensible to adults, that completely absorbed them for long stretches (and which they continue to play to this day). And, I slowly gained confidence that I was ready to re-enter the paid workforce after five-and-a-half years as a stay-at-home mom. Something about radically changing the scenery and rhythms of our day, and finding out we could adapt, made me feel confident that I could do this in other areas of my life too.

    For families looking to plan an unplugged vacation, the best advice that I have is to approach it with a sense of adventure. Embrace getting out of your comfort zone and try to find somewhere with lots of things to keep you occupied during the day. We loved attending family camp at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camp. But there are plenty of other places that offer family camp including the YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa in Wisconsin and YMCA Family Camp Pinewood in Michigan. For those families wanting a true camping in a tent experience, the Chicago Park District offers a Family Camping program with campfires and s’mores of course!



    Emma Berndt

    Emma Berndt is a Senior Advisor at the University of Chicago’s TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health and loves to write about all things parenting. She lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with her husband Eric, and sons Nathan (10) and Jacob (6). 


    Image Credit: Meeker Parenting




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