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Outdoors camps engage kids in learning about themselves

Summer is a time to get outside and get dirty. It’s a time when kids can spend all day splashing in Boulder Creek, or venturing into the woods in search of the perfect tree to climb, or ripping their jeans playing soccer in the backyard. But with Xboxes, iPhones, 3-D movies and laptops, kids can also easily spend a summer day stuck in the basement, forgetting about the wild excitement of the outdoors.

In a typical day, 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours with electronic media, whether it be a television, computer, music device, video game or movie, according to the study “Generation M2, Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds,” released in 2010 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. That number does not include computer use for schoolwork or time spent using a cell phone.

Though spending time on electronic devices is not an inherently bad thing, it cannot compare to the social interactions and creative playtime a child receives in an outdoor summer camp setting.

“The outdoors offers an environment without the support and distractions of people’s normal home lives. They get away from video games and television,” says Andrew Rose, director of Boulder Emotional Wellness, which specializes in wilderness therapy for children and adults. “If you take it all away and go out into the wilderness, you’re left with yourself and the environment. Because the outside environment is new, the child gets to see how they work with stress in a fresh way.”

Boulder Emotional Wellness leads four- to 21-day trips in which participants hike, camp, rock climb, sea kayak, canoe, ride horses and dog sled. On outdoor trips, children gain both confidence and competence by having to do things without the help of a parent or the distraction of a cell phone, Rose says.

“You have to get outdoors to have balance,” Rose says. “The more kids get outdoors and experience the wilderness, the more they respect themselves, they respect other people and they respect the environment.”

Boulder’s abundance of summer camps provides parents a way to give their children structured, active playtime.

The Cal-Wood Education Center, based in the foothills of Jamestown, offers programs based on a philosophy of outdoor education aimed at helping children learn about their connection with nature, according to Angela Borland, school program manager and summer camp director at Cal-Wood.

“Especially nowadays with so much of their world being plugged into computers and cell phones, being in an outside camp gives kids a chance to disconnect and learn on a different level,” Borland says. “They strengthen their observations and their awareness of where they are right now, outside in nature, as opposed to thinking ahead to that phone call or that email or that text message.”

David Hansburg, founder and director of Rocky Mountain Day Camp, has made separating children from technology a priority. The RMDC’s “unplugged” policy bans cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices while children are at camp.

The RMDC offers nine-week day camps in which children rock climb, play lacrosse and practice archery, among other activities, always with a focus on staying outside.

“We think that having a healthy body is a really important part of having a healthy mind,” Hansburg says. “A lot of that is about just getting kids outside and active, and then a lot of it is about socialization in a setting that is active, rather than the classroom setting or sitting in front of the TV.”

Children benefit from all types of play, video games included, says Christie Gestal, founder and lead therapist of The Boulder Center for Play Therapy. However, playing on a computer or with a video game console does not generate the same self exploration as outdoor play.

“When a child goes out into the world and is engaged with another human being or with a toy, they are actually using their own mind and their own process to learn about themselves,” Gestal says.

Through play with peers, children are able to see themselves clearly, and able to understand themselves better,” Gestal says, “Any time that children are able to engage with peers on their level in an environment that’s not school, there’s a lot more freedom for them to explore themselves, which is what children really need to be doing.”

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