Parents plug in to kids at camp

Mom and Dad now know what's happening with their kids via e-mail and secured websites.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    CAPTURED IN ACTION: A counselor, with camera, sizes up her subject on the basketball court at Camp Echo in Burlingham, N.Y. The camp tries to take pictures of each camper for a website parents can view.
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Even though Adam Holland's 11-year-old daughter left for camp weeks ago, he's seen a lot of her this summer. Zoe is 85 miles away at Camp Echo in Burlingham, N.Y., but from his New York City apartment, Mr. Holland has watched her swim, play soccer, kayak, eat breakfast on the beach, and perform in a camp skit.

"The camp puts literally hundreds of pictures on their website every day," he says. "All I need to do is turn on my computer and there she is."

The ubiquity of broadband Internet and digital cameras has connected Mom and Dad to the previously parent-free bubble of summer camp. Now counselors can capture all the group dances, jubilant laughs, and general camper hijinks in photos and video they post on secure websites for parents.

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"A lot of camps are giving parents new options on how to check in and communicate with their children while at camp," says Peg Smith, director of the American Camp Association. "And as more parents ask for these options, more camps are plugging in."

For the past several years, camps have weaved the World Wide Web into their summer packages. This summer, 82 percent of camps accredited by the American Camp Association have websites and 92 percent have their own e-mail address, according to Ms. Smith.

Hundreds have turned to services like eCamp and Bunk1, which provide camps with easy e-mail tools, digital-video postcards, and Holland's personal favorite, daily photo galleries.

Checking the Camp Echo website has become a nightly activity for Holland, a chance to learn all about his daughter's day. At first, flipping through the camp's online photo gallery was like leafing through a "Where's Waldo" book, Holland says. He'd scan the faces, trying to pick out Zoe. But now he recognizes many of his daughter's friends. "I feel like I know them," he says, "which is funny, because I've never met any of them. I don't know their names, but I know all about them."

Like Camp Echo, Blue Star Camps in Hendersonville, N.C., turned to eCamp for a number of Internet options to give parents a "one-way mirror" look into camp life. After running a wildly successful photo gallery - which got 13 million visits last year - Blue Star director Tom Rosenberg says the camp began uploading videos.

"This Father's Day, we had a carnival, and one of the booths let kids send a video message to their families," he says. "They weren't much more than, 'Hi Mom. I love you. Pet the dog for me.' But it gave parents the chance to hear their kid's voice."

This doesn't replace writing letters, Mr. Rosenberg stresses. The camp still encourages kids to write home twice a week. But even letter-writing has entered the digital age. Bunk1 offers a "fax-back" feature, which allows campers to write letters on special stationery with a bar code. Counselors collect the original letters and fax them to Bunk1 headquarters, which then e-mails the handwritten notes to the parents. The idea is to cut out the snail mail, allowing for same-day delivery, while keeping kids away from computers.

"Most kids don't go to summer camp to sit in front of a computer," says Ari Ackerman, founder of Bunk1. "This way, kids can still write letters the old- fashioned way, but talk with their parent in near real time."

Parents can then e-mail the camp, which will print their responses and hand out the mail to campers around mealtimes.

Last week, Holland got a letter from Zoe wishing her sister a happy birthday, describing all the fun she's had at camp, asking her dad to send more e-mails than letters - she likes the immediacy of e-mail - "and at the bottom was a little note saying that her glasses needed adjustment," Holland says. "I contacted the camp's office and they took her to a local optometrist. Good thing she told me. With normal mail, who knows how long it would have taken to fix her glasses."

While many of today's campers have never known a world without the Web, the ACA's Smith says that it's parents who are spurring camps to adopt e-mail and photo services.

"Parents are much more anxious today than five years ago," she says. "Since 9/11, parents have wanted to feel more connected with their child and want to know there are ways of getting a note to them immediately."

Camp enrollment had risen nearly every year before the terrorist attack in 2001, Smith says. For several years after that, the numbers were stagnant and parents began sending their kids to camps closer to home.

This is the first summer the ACA has seen another significant climb in enrollment. The rise is not because of these online services, says Blue Star Camps director Rosenberg, but they are helping parents cope.

"It's not only campers who get homesick," he says. "Parents can get camper-sick, too. Often this is probably the longest their child has been away from home."

The photo galleries have created a new problem for counselors, though. They can give a candid look at camp life, but many photos are bound to be out of context. As a result, some parents over-analyze single shots and worry over their camper's every expression.

"There was a lady who called last week worried that her kid looked unhappy in a certain picture," says Chris Lewis, who oversees Internet services for WinShape Camps in Mt. Berry, Ga. "We looked at the picture and he was just tired. It's a hundred degrees, of course the kid was a little worn out. We asked him if everything was all right, and he said he was loving it here."

Camp Echo will continue integrating technology into the camp life, giving parents new features and, in some cases, teaching kids tech-savvy skills they can use during the off-season, says Jordan Coleman, one of the camp's owners.

"We're talking about making podcasts and video podcasts," the camp owner says. "Podcasts could be the new camp radio. But instead of just making something that only the camp can hear, we can send podcasts home."

Along with a climbing wall, theater, and tennis courts, Independent Lake Camp in Orson, Pa., has a separate building for its digital department.

"We are well aware that any camp wanting to keep its doors open during the third millennium had better have a mouse in the house. Lots of them," reads Independent Lake Camp's website.

With 650 kids and only 40 computers, the camp's director, Dan Gould, says Independent Lake campers have scheduled times when they can crawl the Web freely.

"Some campers are all about it and can send out e-mails almost every day if they want," he says. "Others really couldn't care less. There're so many other things to do at camp, they're outside having fun."

Many directors don't want to give campers the option of playing on a computer.

"When you walk around Camp Belknap, you're not going to hear phones or iPods or see any campers on computers," says camp director Gene Clark III. "High technology really goes against the original meaning of camp."

While Mr. Clark insists that his campers unplug, he says the camp itself is not opposed to technology. The main office is equipped with up-to-date machines. Counselors may use cellphones and e-mail after hours. The camp's website features several photo galleries. But kids need to be outside, Clark says.

"Also, high technology increases homesickness," says Clark, who has been at Belknap, on Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. since his father ran the camp 30 years ago. "E-mail, instant messaging, phone calls, and other kinds of immediate communication, they affect kids."

Nine out of 10 times, if a kid gets on the phone with a parent, the parents will come pick the child up early, he says.

The colloquial writing style of e-mails and instant messages can have the same result on a child. When campers get too close to home emotionally, Clark says, homesickness can rush in.

That is the benefit of one-way e-mail, argues Mr. Ackerman of Bunk1. It's traditional letter-writing, translated for 21st-century kids.

"Make camp about camp," he says. "There's plenty of time to play on a computer when they get home."

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