Digital or dirt?

July 16, 2012 (CHICAGO)

But should kids leave technology behind?

If you have children heading off to summer camp, they may be told to leave their cell phones and video games at home. But in this technology-filled world, some parents are choosing to trade the traditional nature camp for a new reality.

At Irons Oaks Nature Camp in south suburban Olympia Fields, cell phones and video games are nowhere to be found.

"Our goal even goes further; we try not to let them experience a light bulb, we want to make sure they are outside all the time," said Cheryl Vargo, manager of Iron Oaks.

From playing in the dirt to looking for wildlife, campers spend their days in the woods.

"There's a lot of things to look forward to... it's better than video games sometimes," said Jaelyn Miska Strong, 12, of Evanston.

"In video games you'll see people in tents and stuff... this is what it's like but in real life, so it's more fun than sitting at home, pretending to be that person," said Mara Eloff, 11, of Evanston.

Camp director Margaret Hammerand says there is no substitute for being outside.

"I think that kids get enough technology in schools and at home, whereas they don't get nature, parents aren't pushing their kids to go and play in the woods," said Hammerand.

However, the 'great outdoors' is not every kid's idea of fun. At Emagination Computer Camp in Lake Forest, technology is center stage.

"It's fun to come here, because everyone likes computers, and I really like computers," said Isabel Leckie of Deerfield.

"Today, technology is really everywhere, and people who know how to design games or create websites are sought after right now," said Max Mansfield of Deerfield.

"It's a great opportunity, you can learn a lot, make a lot of friends and have a great time," said Jake Reiners of Madison, Wisconsin.

Campers learn to create their own video games or build and program robots. Here, instead of banning cell phones, campers design their own iPhone apps.

"We are part of an evolving world," said Craig Whiting, executive director and owner of Emagination. Whiting runs Emagination computer camps across the country. He says some kids need alternatives to traditional nature camps.

"I think if your child is well-suited to going to lake in Maine or a lake in Wisconsin, that is a great choice," said Whiting. "We offer options, and there are some children who aren't well suited to going up to that lake."

"Summer is a time to take that vacation, to unplug," said DePaul University early childhood education expert Dr. Jennifer Mata, who says banning technology at camp may be a thing of the past.

"It's not a matter of all or nothing, or being wrong or right, it's a matter of balancing it out and giving children the opportunity to do both," said Mata.

At Emagination, campers still have daily scheduled time for what they call "retro-games" -- more traditional social activities outside -- as a break from the time spent in front of a computer.

"We embrace technology," said Emagination camp director Jason Masters. "If this is something that they're really passionate about, I don't think you should cut them off."

Experts say while balancing technology and nature is important, it's critical for children to take time during summer break to unplug and just be kids.

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