NO PHONES, NO SOCIAL MEDIA: ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CAMP AS A PHONE-FREE REFUGE

November 21, 2017By kristin

art camp garden

When my kids were little, a screen-free upbringing (or, at least, screen-limited) was incredibly important to me. They so rarely watched television and so rarely saw me watching television that I vividly remember the first time my older son saw a commercial on TV; he was four years old and after watching a string of ads in the middle of a cartoon show, he turned to me and asked: “How did we ever know what to buy without watching these?”

I’ve repeated that anecdote for a dozen years now, always enjoying my son’s precocious observation, as well as the implication that he was never exposed to anything so mundane as regular TV. As do many parents, I sometimes veer toward being straight up obnoxious. (What? It masks other deep-rooted insecurities! Anyway.)

It’s funny, now, because any smugness I used to feel about not being a parent who parked their child in front of a show whenever they needed 15 minutes to take a shower has long since vanished. However, the screens to which my 16- and 13-year-old sons are most attached are not televisions, but rather those of their phones. Like just about all people not only of their generation, but also of any generation alive today, my kids are more likely to be found without their, I don’t know, literal arms than their phones.

Any smugness I used to feel about not being a parent who parked their child in front of a show whenever they needed 15 minutes to take a shower has long since vanished

I suppose it all started innocently enough, with regular flip phones purchased once they came of an age to walk to school alone. I’m far from a helicopter parent, but I did want text message-confirmation that my kids had made it the few blocks away to school safely. Soon enough, those flip phones graduated into smart phones and it felt like, overnight, all the work I’d done over the years—the limited time spent watching television, the refusal to buy video game systems, the insistence upon reading books and listening to music on car rides—had vanished in an instant. It was… disheartening, to say the least.

phone

And yet, it was hard for me to be altogether that surprised. After all, I too had a smart phone and a near compulsive habit of looking at it throughout the day. And too harshly limiting the time they spent on their phones felt Sisyphean; their phones were their way of connecting to their friends and the outside world, of gathering news, and, yes, playing games. Sure, I could ask them to put their phones away when I was around them—and they would listen—but I’m not around them all the time, and I’d be a fool to think the phones didn’t come back out once I was gone.

Further complicating this phone- and social media-addicted reality is the fact that, as mentioned before, I fall prey to it as well. And I relate to why they succumb to their phones: They view them as an escape, as relaxation time, a way to unwind after the rigors of their school days and homework sessions.

It’s an ironic aspect of our reality that the way in which so many of us choose to disconnect from the rest of our lives is by connecting to our screens

But, of course, it’s not that simple. While, yes, it can feel like a specific type of mental zoning out to just text with friends, or scroll mindlessly through our Instagram feeds, there is nothing inherently relaxing about being attached to a screen. On the contrary, phones—and everything they represent—are stimulants; the constant stream of information keeps us on edge—and craving more and more. It’s an ironic aspect of our reality that the way in which so many of us choose to disconnect from the rest of our lives is by connecting to our screens. But it’s a hard habit to break, one whose only cure can seem to be going cold turkey. Easier said than done though, right?

And yet: There is one surefire way of achieving a true disconnect—at least, one that I found for my sons. And that’s their time in camp. While some camps don’t have a strict no-phones policy (often enough it’s because parents just can’t handle not being in touch with their children!), Ballibay does—and I can’t help but think that this is one of the reasons my children look forward to their summer weeks there so much.

Since they can’t use their phones, my kids don’t even bring them; there’s absolutely no temptation to use them at all. Instead, they spend their time engaged with the people and activities around them. One of the things I most love about Ballibay’s philosophy is how camper-led it is, by which I mean that it’s the kids who figure out what it is they want to do and when to do it, and go from there. This leads to a true feeling of agency for the campers, something which I think is missing when they find their free time being occupied by the siren calls of social media. There’s no choice attached to using your phone, is the thing; it feels like an inescapable situation, like the addiction it is. At Ballibay, without their phones, kids get to experience what it’s really like to make a choice about what it is they want to be doing.

phone

I’ve thought often about the many times I would, as a child, either think to myself or say out loud, I’m bored, and how my own kids rarely ever do that—they always have something to occupy them, and it happens to be their phones. But boredom is not a bad thing, because it takes ingenuity and creativity to solve this problem. If a phone and all its bells and whistles can answer the question of what to do all the time, we eventually won’t have the ability to do so ourselves—we’ll be letting apps answer that question for us.

This is all the more reason it’s important to divest our kids of their phones on occasion. At Ballibay, they spend weeks without them, and, as per my kids, they don’t even miss them. So the real question is, how do we maintain that, as parents, during the camp off-season?

For me, the answer to that begins with my own phone use. I’ve made the conscious choice not to look at my phone as much around my kids, or during time when I would’ve mindlessly used it, like on my daily subway commutes. Demonstrating to my kids that I’m exercising my option to pull out a book to read, or a notebook to jot down thoughts, or even nothing at all, and am just allowing my mind to wander where it wants to go, has been, I think (I hope!), a powerful thing for them to witness. Then, too, I have put into place stricter rules about when they can and can’t use their phones at home. And when they’ve complained, it’s been simple enough to remind them of how long they went without phones at Ballibay, and how much they enjoyed their time there.

The importance of having separation from screens can’t be overemphasized. Not being with a phone teaches kids—and adults—a level of resourcefulness that we’ve grown complacent about. It teaches us all to be more creative, to interact in the old-fashioned, analog way (you know, face-to-face communication!), and it serves as an important reminder that our phones and social media presences belong to us, but we do not belong to them. The power is within us, and it’s beneficial to unplug once in a while—or even more than that.

CENTER STAGE: HOW THEATRE HELPS OUR KIDS IN ALL AREAS OF LIFE

July 18, 2017By kristin

theater camp performance 1

It’s well known at this point that many, if not most, public schools have had to cut back on their arts programming. (This is, after all, one of the reasons we’re all sending our kids to art camp, right?) But while there’s a lot of awareness of decreasing budgets for music and fine arts classes, there is less attention paid to the lack of theatrical study now on offer at schools. Perhaps this is because the ability to draw a still life or carry a simple tune is seen as a more general artistic talent, available to many, whereas taking to the stage to perform in a theatrical piece is seen as specialized, reserved only for those who have a real passion for the stage.

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame that more children aren’t involved with theatrical arts, because the skills gleaned from acting on stage can be applied to all areas of life. Below are some of the many ways in which theatrical experience can be a huge asset to your child. As someone pretty famous once said, all the world’s a stage, why not encourage your kids to play on it?

It instills in them a sense of being one small—but vital—part of a larger whole

Collaboration: Unless your child winds up only acting in one-man, self-directed and -written shows (which, wow, that’s impressive), chances are that they will be working with a whole team of people. This instills in them a sense of being one small—but vital—part of a larger whole. They can see firsthand the impact that their work has on the team, and will learn how to better move a collective creative vision into a final product.

Confidence: There’s tons of adults I know who are terrified of standing up in front of a big crowd, let alone speaking to one. Few, if any, of these adults were involved with theatre when they were kids. Theatre helps children understand that they have it in them to command a room; they are important enough to have all eyes on them. Being on stage, whether as a star or bit player, affords kids an opportunity to experience what it’s like to have everyone else around hush up and pay attention. And it gives them the tools to know what to do with that focus: Speak loudly and clearly, and communicate effectively.

Body language: Acting is a full-body experience, and lots of kids have no clue what they ought to be doing with their bodies. Theatre exercises make kids cognizant of how they carry themselves in this world, and how even the slightest gestures can convey different emotions and attitudes. They will learn about the power of their own breath, the way they can use their voice to make themselves heard in all sorts of different ways.

theater camp performance 2

Reading between the lines: Being a careful and perceptive reader is a skill that most kids learn in their English classes at school, but the kind of extra close line-by-line reading that theatre necessitates can lead to a whole new level of reading comprehension. It’s a wonderful gift for kids to have to move through a play sentence by sentence, wondering what the motivation is behind each and every word. The limited amount of exposition in scripts means that kids will have to use their imaginations to understand what a character’s intent actually is. This is invaluable when it comes to our children’s future, regarding everything from critical thinking about books to the ways in which our kids will learn to intuit how other people are thinking and feeling.

Failure is an option, but that’s okay: Here’s a thing about live theatre: If something can go wrong at one point, it probably will. Maybe a line will be forgotten. Maybe an entrance will be missed. Maybe a prop will go missing. Maybe a set piece will fall. Maybe crazy right-wingers will come rushing the stage screaming about gerbils because they don’t understand political satire. Whatever the case may be, disaster often strikes live theatre. And you know what? Everything still turns out just fine. This is an important lesson for kids to learn. There’s so many variables in life. So few are fully under our control. That’s why we’ve got to learn to roll with the punches, and do our best anyway. And also to…

Improvise: Just because something gets messed up, it doesn’t mean everything needs to stop. The show—like life—must go on. This is so important for kids to realize; even when they are literally the star of the stage, they too need to adapt to big changes. And in that adaptation comes a different kind of liberation, one which shows kids that there can be freedom in veering away from the designated script, and just experiencing what comes next with no plan in sight.

A life in theatre can teach you a different way of seeing the world—as a stage, as a playground, as a home to make your own

Rejection: It’s a fact that not everyone can be the star of a show; some people might not even ever make it on stage. This sucks and can be hard to deal with, but it’s also a necessary life lesson. It’s also one that parents often try to shelter their children from learning. But that can’t be done in theatre. Kids will need to learn how to accept it, or… well, there is no “or.” Rejection is a part of life, and it’s good to get exposed to its sting.

Praise: Beyond getting used to rejection, though, kids should get used to praise. One of the best parts of being on stage is—without a doubt—the applause. Oh, that’s not because everyone should constantly be showered with cheers and flowers, but rather because it’s a wonderful thing to be openly praised for all the hard work and talent and effort that go into a theatrical profession. And just as it’s good to teach kids about rejection, it’s good to teach them about praise. Through this type of affirmation, kids can better understand what results from their work and also take the time to praise the work of those who helped bring their creative passion into fruition.

Theatre might not be life-changing for every kid who participates in it. And, look, it’s not that all actors are wholly well-adjusted people. (Though, to be honest, I’m sure that they’re not any better or worse than any other adults. Humans—we’re a messy bunch.) But being on stage can impart valuable lessons to all who partake in it. In essence, a life in theatre can teach you a different way of seeing the world—as a stage, as a playground, as a home to make your own.

theater camp performance 3

CAMP FOOD COUNTS: AN INTRO TO MINDFUL EATING

July 3, 2017By kristin

art camp cooking

Ask any kid who’s gone to Ballibay (or at least ask one of my kids) what one of their favorite aspects of camp is and the answer is sure to contain the following two words: THE. FOOD.

This is not to say, of course, that food is the main focus of campers’ time at Ballibay, rather it’s to stress the importance of what it means that Ballibay promotes a healthy food culture—particularly in a time when we’re more aware than ever about the ways in which what we eat and where it comes from matters.

Mindful eating is healthy eating

And, you know, it’s natural that food would be a primary focus of campers: Not only are they all at that time in their life when they seem to be bottomless pits of calorie consumption (how else would they manage to get so tall?), but also eating is something that they have to do three times a day. It should be an activity about which they are conscientious; mindful eating is healthy eating, after all.

There are a multitude of ways in which Ballibay emphasizes the importance of mindful eating that make nutrition a collaborative and fun process for the kids—meaning it doesn’t feel like the idea of mindful eating is being, well, shoved down their throats.

One way is the camp garden, in which campers can gain an appreciation for what it means to eat locally and seasonally. They can also get very hand’s on with some of the food that will eventually be served in salads, side dishes, and snacks.

healthy salad at art camp

 

Another thing that kids can learn at Ballibay is how to feel empowered about their food choices. This isn’t the dining hall grub of movie summer camps. There’s no bug juice. There’s no mystery meat. Instead, there’s an abundance of thoughtfully prepared and balanced meals on offer that will probably introduce new foods and cooking techniques to many of the kids, while also being recognizable in a way that’s never threatening, but can potentially challenging in the best possible way. It’s always good to get out of our comfort zones, after all.

There’s nothing like getting your hands dirty to foster an appreciation of the kind of work that can and should go into food preparation

My elder son’s eating habits radically changed when he started attending Ballibay. Gone was the kid who would only choke down vegetables when presented with them. Suddenly, I had someone who sought out salad bars and was excited to try new things. This didn’t mean that he magically started loving food he’d always disliked (he’s just not a fan of raw tomatoes), but rather that he grew so used to being presented with and trying things that he himself had helped harvest from the ground, that this newfound experimentation extended into the rest of his life.

snacks at art camp - popcorn

Beyond these implicit ways of learning to appreciate and expand ideas about food, Ballibay offers explicit food education, in the form of its educational kitchen co-op. In the co-op, campers can learn food preparation techniques and work in small groups to prepare the snacks and desserts for the whole camp. Or, campers can work in the garden, where they have the opportunity to harvest everything from pumpkins to salad greens to grapes to potatoes. There’s nothing like getting your hands dirty to foster an appreciation of the kind of work that can and should go into food preparation. It’s a lot different than just tearing open a bag of chips, or even prepping dinner that’s been sent to your home from some meal delivery service.

Meal time should be about the food, yes, but it is also about the people with whom you share it

But perhaps the most important aspect of food culture at Ballibay is that it promotes a sense of community. Meal time should be about the food, yes, but it is also about the people with whom you share it. The importance of the social aspect of mealtime should not be underestimated. Everything from preparing the meal to serving it to enjoying it to cleaning up after it is something that can and will be shared with other people, and that sense of collaboration, and of appreciating everyone’s joint efforts is an invaluable experience.

These are the things campers at Ballibay are going to be reminded of as they grow older, that food is no more or less vital a part of our humanity than other shared cultural experiences. It is a thing of value around which a relationship must be built and encouraged. It is a serious part of our daily lives, but it is also an opportunity to have fun and experiment; to play around and dig in with gusto; to eat up and realize every day can taste this good.

food at art camp

THE PRICE WE PAY FOR SUMMER—AND SUMMER CAMP

April 20, 2017By kristin

There are two things that no parent likes to be told how to manage—their kids and their money. And this is sort of funny, really, because are there two things that most of us feel like we have less control over than kids or money? Are there two things we like talking about (read: complaining about) more? No. No, there aren’t.

And when those two things collide, when, for example, something involving our kids costs quite a bit of money, it becomes a thing. It becomes one of those situations in which we hem and haw and wonder if we’re doing what’s right when it comes to both our children and our finances, and almost instinctively bristle against advice from well-meaning friends and family. Because nobody else can possibly understand what we’re going through, right? And, ugh, why can’t these kinds of decisions just be easier—and cheaper—like they undoubtedly were when we were kids??  

I am, of course, talking about summer camp and the way in which its expense weighs heavily—and understandably so—into the decision-making process for parents. More than that, though, I’m also talking about how important it is to, well, talk about these costs and any angst that accompanies them. I think that what many parents risk by privately fretting about the price of summer camp is potentially missing out on realizing summer camp’s actual value, which is tremendous.

A bit about me: I’m a divorced, full-time working mother of two boys, who lives in a not-big-enough apartment in Brooklyn and cuts corners in a variety of different ways. I'm also someone who can’t really imagine not finding a way to send my kids to sleep away camp—and very specifically Ballibay—for a few weeks every summer. I was lucky enough to first be introduced to Ballibay via a silent auction at a charity benefit, during which I won two weeks of art camp for my then ten-year-old son.

I’m not sure who was more excited, me or him. Just kidding, it was totally me. I had always wanted to go to sleep away camp as a kid, but never did. And an arts camp? With drama? And music? And horses? I mean, it was a dream.

Plus, as a working parent during the summer, I was always scrambling to find an adequate day camp for my kids, one which didn’t require me to leave work a couple hours early. Most importantly: one which my kids actually liked.

And the thing about most day camp programs, particularly art-based ones, in cities like New York, is that they’re really expensive too. They also don’t have the benefits of sleep away camp, like, the fact that three meals a day and every other perk imaginable is provided. Plus, you know, sleep away camp meant that my son would actually be, like, sleeping away from home. It would give me a respite from worrying about whether or not his summer was fulfilling and fun, and give me a little time of my own to enjoy to boot.

None of this really would have mattered, of course, if he hadn’t liked camp. If Ballibay hadn’t been the right place for him, if he hadn’t felt stimulated and energized and engaged, then who cares? But the thing is that he didn’t just like it—he loved it. Though it’s now almost six years ago, I can immediately recall the mile-wide grin on his face on the night I came to see him perform as one of the von Trapp children in the end-of-session musical theater night.

Soon, he regaled me with tales of bonfires and dance performances and horses and swimming and card games taught by ultra-cool counselors and the delicious food he ate every day. (Seriously, one of the things my kids miss the most about Ballibay is the incredible camp food; finally not a conceptual oxymoron.) If there had been any doubt that this experience would be anything other than superiorly beneficial for him, that was all wiped away in an instant. He loved it, but he also grew from it; he’d gained an independence and an ineffable maturity in those couple of weeks.

Still, though, in gearing up for the next summer, I was a bit hesitant before registering both my sons for Ballibay. I had no doubts about the camp, but I still had some feelings of guilt, I think. Which, you know, another thing that issues surrounding both money and kids share is guilt. It is almost impossible as a parent not to feel guilty about decisions we make surrounding kids and money. And even those times of feeling no guilt—like when I realized how uncomplicatedly nice it felt to be child-free for a couple of weeks, knowing that my kids were happily occupied—inevitably leads to feeling guilty.

My guilt resided in the fact that I knew there were cheaper sleep away camp options out there, and maybe it would be smarter to explore some of those too. So that’s what we did that second summer; there would be two weeks of camp at Ballibay and two at a Y camp that was about half the cost. Probably it was for the best that we did those two camps back-to-back, because without having that comparison, we wouldn’t really have known that there was, well, no comparison.

While my older son (always a more easy-going kid) found the Y camp to be okay and “totally fine,” my younger son hated it. He didn’t like the inherent competition in every activity, he rebelled against the strictness of the programming, he was bored with the lack of creative options during elective play time. They both couldn’t stand the food.

Ballibay, though, was wholly different. It felt like a true alternative to the typical sleep away camp, and it was one that my kids fully loved. It’s become a part of who they are, really, since it allows them to have a significant amount of time each summer away from home and on their own, in a supportive space that encourages them to direct their own schedules and lives. And while the cost is not insignificant, neither is the experience they’re getting, one which is educational and fulfilling and exploratory and truly self-led in so many more ways than, say, a five-day Disney vacation would be. (And, hey, it’s not even as expensive as that would be, anyway.)

There’s no simple way for any parent when it comes to making big life choices about their kids, or, for that matter, their money. And for some families, sleep away camp—or any camp—simply isn’t an option. But for those who are contemplating it, but just feel doubtful that it’s the right thing to spend money on, I would just advise that they think of it not as a frivolous expense, like trendy new clothes. Think of it, rather, as an ancillary part of our children’s lives, the kind of thing that helps make them who they are and encourages them to develop more deeply as themselves.

There’s a cost on this, for sure—as there is on everything from SAT tutoring to music lessons to buying books—but there’s no way to put an easy value on it, because when I think of what it is that my kids have gained over the last handful of years, the only thing I can think is that it’s all been priceless.