The Things that Remain

Happy holidays and happy trails to our extended community out there in BT land! From wintry Wisconsin, where we’ve got lots of holiday excitement, the whole Chernov family is thrilled to wish all of you a joyous and healthy 2015!

Throughout the fall and early winter, I’ve traveled from Milwaukee to Chicago and back again, to Houston, Orange County, Denver, back to Chicago, to Los Angeles and Atlanta, Detroit, Florida, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Connecticut, Brooklyn and yes—a few more Chicago back-and-forth trips. My days have been filled to the brim with all of these incredible cities, so many fun-packed reunions, and more smiles than I could possibly count. Visiting our Birch Trail families across the country is one of the best parts of my job, and helps us all feel connected during the long months between camp seasons.

For several years, I have been part of a small group of camping professionals, a camping “Think Tank,” as we fondly (and half-seriously) refer to ourselves. This group meets on a regular basis during the off-season, not only to discuss common, industry-specific challenges and opportunities, but also to jointly consult experts in child development.

Because times change, the world changes, and our roles as parents and educators will subsequently continue to evolve, this “Think Tank” recognizes the need stay at the forefront of emerging issues. Utilizing every resource available, we’ve spent long, productive hours with these trusted colleagues, learning how to make Birch Trail and her compatriot camps the best places for our children.

To that end, we hosted psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair at this past week’s Think Tank Session. Catherine’s new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, explores the impact “screen” exposure has on our lives and our children. I came away from the conference thinking intently about the psychological effects of technology, and what we can do to help our campers both at Birch Trail and beyond.

Birch Trail has always embraced the philosophy that knowledge is power, and that an exposure to wide variety of cultures and perspectives makes way for prosperity. Such is the case with our approach to improving camp’s programs, protocol, and processes. I know I speak for the rest of the leadership team when I say that we’ll leave no stone unturned in search for help and ideas in creating the best possible camp environment. It’s easy to read every book and peruse the blogs, even attend the “Big Show” conferences and conventions. But in my experience, some of the greatest learning and advancement has truly come from round-table discussions with my peers—whether they be fellow camp directors, other parents, educators, or childcare professionals.

When it comes to the potential changes technological advancement may bring to our society, one thing is clear among all I’ve consulted: though we all get tech-crazed from time to time, there are simple, achievable methods that can get us all back on track. And as it turns out, many of the recommended steps to unplugging for better health and stronger relationships are things we’ve been embracing at camp for years!

Step 1: Forks Out, Phones Down: Should be a no-brainer, but can be tricky to accomplish with busy schedules. Family meals are widely known to be sacred, important times to get together and debrief the day. Make a habit out of this screen-free tradition and you’ll be surprised at how special every-day meals can feel. At camp, everyone cheers and talks so loudly at their tables that no one could hear a thing if they were on the phone, which makes mealtime a whole different kind of special.

Step 2: Unplug before Bed: At the end of each day, children need to be reminded how important they are to us, and the best way we can do that as parents and caregivers is with time and attention, whether that time be spent talking and snuggling or reading books. Our days are long and busy, and nighttime is meant for winding down. So many kids—and adults—have succumbed to the habit of falling asleep with a television on. I can’t tell you how many kids come to Birch Trail saying they “need” the TV on in order to sleep, only to quickly fall into a natural, screen-less nighttime routine with their cabin mates.

Step 3: Schedule Screen-free time: We all need to feel connected to the people we hold most dear, and distractions from text messages and work emails, or even the noise of a TV in the background can weaken our inherent ability to maintain relationships over time. One of the best (and most naturally occurring) things that happens at camp is the opportunity to be actively engaged in good old-fashioned play. We laugh, dress up, sing silly songs, and just generally goof off without the help—or interference—of technology. Away from computers and cell phones, our staff and campers find themselves fully present in each activity, relationship, meal, adventure, and challenge.

It can be difficult to give up those handy smart phones and devices, though—I myself own up to this. At Thanksgiving this year, Barbara forced us all to put our phones in a special basket above the fridge for several hours so that we could enjoy our time together as a family. It was tough for me to obey the new rule, but after about twenty minutes, I forgot all about my phone and focused on the kids (…okay, I might have watched a little football, too). I’ve even seen some parents get crafty, making “Phone prisons” for the living room or dining room table. Heck, at Birch Trail, we have to lock all the cell phones in a safe!

Step 4: Get Outside: Nothing helps us forget all about the temptations of technology than the wonders of our natural world. Going for a simple walk around the neighborhood with your kids, driving down a nearby forest road, exploring local hiking trails—so many incredible opportunities lie right outside our doors and get out kids away from the TV or computer screen. Getting outside with our kids shows them that we can exhibit healthy habits, too, and can appreciate the beauty life has to offer us. Kids enjoy a hefty dose of nature appreciation at camp, but reinforcing those values at home is just as important to children’s well-being.

I know that this list is going to get me into trouble with my wife, Erin, since I am guilty of bringing my phone to the dinner table and checking my iPad before going to sleep, but I do think there is some good advice here. There’s no better time than the holidays to begin forging a few new habits, to begin bringing quality family time back to the forefront. In all the hustle and bustle of our increasingly hectic lives, it’s so easy to get caught up in the trappings of technology and all it can offer us. Perhaps from time to time, though, we forget about what the old-fashioned stuff can offer us as well. But—and I admit I’m getting nostalgic now—when I think back on my fondest childhood memories from any season, they rarely include the latest toy or video game. Instead, I remember winters spent playing in the snow with my father, skiing until our toes went numb. I remember swimming in the lake waters up North in the summertime, sun-soaked and giddy. I hope you’ll join me in an effort to give our kids the same kinds of halcyon memories, because newfangled gadgets come and go, but some things will never change: snow will fall and the sun will shine, and mothers and fathers will love their children.

Wishing you a joyful holiday season,


2 thoughts on “The Things that Remain”

  1. great reminder Gabe and thanks for upholding this! One of the best things about their summers at camp is the no electronics and good old fashioned fun.

  2. This is really cool! Even with my little guys, we have to be mindful of making sure they have major time away from the TV and definitely outside in the dirt collecting bugs and such. I was reading about someone named Tina Bryson the other day and how she is part of a lot of new child psychology stuff and co wrote a book I’m reading the whole brain child, and I was actually wondering if you ever met her or heard her speak because the article said she was giving a talk to the ACA. If u did I’d be interested to know what kind of info you would pass on to the counsellors and girls.

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