When people ask me what other programs we compete with, I don’t first think of other outdoor or youth development companies—our competition is actually video games and technology.
Twenty years ago, most kids spent their summer outdoors—it was what kids did. Now programs like ours are reserved for the adventurous few as people move away from the great outdoors to the great indoors. The numbers speak for themselves; the typical teen spends nine hours daily (Common Sense Media, Kaiser Family Foundation) with digital media and less than one hour each day outdoors. So if we see our competition as technology, we have to commit to making sure that kids see camp as more fun and more rewarding than video games. And if we want to compete favorably, we have to understand the appeal of technology and why it captures our kids’ imaginations.
But first… One never gets anywhere by “dissing” technology. We all know the many ways technology has enhanced our lives, and I have to constantly remind myself that the digital world is the only world which our kids know. Texting and Instagram are how kids socialize now. It’s not their fault; they never knew life without the internet or social media.
As parents, we have enabled this world by restricting our kids’ freedoms. Most parents, I surmise, feel more comfortable letting their kids play video games in the basement than allowing them to ride their bicycles freely around town. As the ever-watchful and highly involved parents we are, we give our kids less room to roam and less time to socialize unsupervised in public spaces than did previous generations. Because we have reduced the opportunity for the face-to-face socialization kids love, we force them online where they can create their own space with the privacy that teenagers also crave. We have to realize that technology might not necessarily be kids’ first choice of how they would like to communicate—I would argue that “face-to-face” still wins for most kids, and that technology is just the easy default.
Competing with technology and video games specifically is tough: Hundreds of millions of research dollars goes into making video games more fun each year (you can insert the word addictive if you choose), and video games have certain characteristics that make them popular.
- Video games put the kids in control, and the child is at the center of the experience. While in academics, youth sports, and much of family life, it’s the adults who run things.
- Video games are action packed 100 percent of the time and can be played with their friends.
- Video games allow kids to create their own reality based upon their motivations—these worlds are often more vivid and exciting than their worlds at home.
- Video games reward incremental success with digital prizes and/or praise. Because of this incremental success and recognition, there is constant incentive to keep playing as they continue to succeed through ever-increasing challenges.
- Video games allow children to experiment and fail privately without fear of criticism. For many kids, especially boys, public failure and the associated embarrassment is the greatest fear when pushing their comfort levels.
At Camp Pinnacle, we build some of the same benefits of video games into our program. While we don’t have an R & D budget to match Nintendo, we have some natural advantages that make it easy for us to beat video games at their own game!
- Camp Pinnacle is fun! We believe outdoor activities, when properly led and where fun is appropriately emphasized, can consistently be more fun than video games. Imagine ziplining, whitewater rafting, playing rainbow tag, or mountain biking on an exciting downhill trail. Sorry, Minecraft—game over!
- At Camp Pinnacle, we put kids in the center of the community. Sure, the counselors are running the show, but campers have real voice in how their community runs. They get to create their own world at Camp Pinnacle, and it’s usually kinder, better, and more social than the world they left at home. The counselors are young and cool enough that they can be included as part of the community in a way that parents or coaches could never be.
- Camp is technology-free with a focus on building a natural appreciation and love of the outdoors. The best way to beat tech is to make the place with the total absence of technology even better. We create a place where Instagram and Snapchat can’t compete with constant face-to-face interaction. When you live together 24/7 (and the norms and mores are subtly guided by “cool” mentors), the social joy of Camp Pinnacle makes social media pale by comparison.
- Our free-choice days allow campers to challenge themselves at an appropriate level. This incremental improvement, similar to what video games offer, helps build success and confidence.
- Because of our nightly evening circles, positive feedback is regular and abundant. We create a place where it’s safe to fail. We build a culture that encourages trying new things and pushing one’s comfort level. Kids know where they stand, and it feels good to get feedback on a regular basis.
- Camp lets kids see themselves in a new light. They get a fresh start and are not limited by their reputation from home or preconceived notions their friends may hold. With a new group of friends and away from family, they can become a different person. Meanwhile, the high expectations we hold for behavior allow campers to become their “best selves.”
By understanding how technology fits into kids’ lives and the competition we face with digital media, it helps us keep the Camp Pinnacle experience relevant and ensures we don’t lose sight of the most important stuff: a tech-free connection to the outdoors and the formation of a close community led by impressive and cool role models.
This will be Camp Pinnacle’s 87th summer! We simply can’t run our program the same way we did 50, 20, or even three years ago. Every year, technologies change, and as kids interact with this new technology, their perception of the world changes. We have to make sure we deliver an incredible outdoor experience in a way that fits how kids raised in the digital age can receive it. And at the end of two technology-free weeks, filled with the simplicity and joy of the outdoors, we believe kids’ perception of technology might just shift a bit.
Five years from now, we predict our competition will no longer be digital media—it will probably be virtual reality—and we plan to be ready!