Beyond the Symbols and Behind the Secrets
The first camp directors were iconoclasts, a description that seems rather un-spiritual. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of shying away from the spiritual aspects of the camp experience, they embraced the beauty of rustic settings, the simplicity of living in nature with minimal technology, and the fellowship that inevitably developed. No surprise then that the first camp directors also inserted daily Bible study in their programs. Religious practices fit the mood. The first camp directors-like many of their contemporaries-were iconoclasts not because they were breaking religious tradition, but because they were progressive educators who saw camp as a vibrant complement to the classroom. Today, spiritual and religious aspects of the camp experience are as important and alive as they ever were. For many campers and staff, spiritual growth is the true heart of camping.
Recent research by the American Camp Association (ACA Education pdf – ACA Education Page – View the Final Results) suggests that children who attend religious camps evidence more spiritual growth than the average camper at a nonreligious camp. That makes sense. Well designed, intentional camp programming often produces the desired outcomes. Families looking for spiritual growth of a particular sort (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) should carefully select a camp whose mission and programming match their goals and values. Indeed, there are many wonderful religious camps from which to choose. But here I’d like to focus on the kind of spiritual growth that transcends a particular religion or denomination. What is it about camp that promotes spirituality? How can families look beyond the Crosses, or Stars of David, or Crescents and learn the secret to what makes a camp spiritual?
I believe that at least four factors contribute to a deeply spiritual experience at camp: sharing, reflection, natural beauty, and a connection with the past. After I describe my understanding of each of these elements, I’ll offer tips on what to look for as you refine your camp search.
Sharing: Your children learned how to do this in preschool, but how well do they share now? When is the last time they invited an unpopular kid to their birthday party or gave some really good toys and clothes to charity? At deeply spiritual camps, sharing goes beyond letting someone else use your stuff. It includes reaching out to share yourself-your time, your skills, your smile-with others. It involves cultivating the ability to detect who is most in need. It also involves disclosure. Sharing some of your thoughts and feelings with others is the fastest, surest way to form close relationships. And relationships, with other people, with nature, and even with a higher power, fuel our spiritual life.
Evidence of sharing at camp may include:
- Daily, secular vespers services, where staff share enlightening life experiences with campers and fellow staff
- Programmed time (i.e., time deliberately set aside) for campers to discuss the day’s events and exchange feedback about their interactions
- Staff whose priority is spending time with children-time that includes listening to children’s own experiences and learning what’s most important to them
- Frequent encouragement to include all campers in activities, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds
Reflection: The pace of life sometimes eclipses opportunities to reflect. Like their parents, children have become accustomed to being overscheduled; to rushing from one activity to another. They watch films, television, and play video games at a frenetic pace. And many live in noisy urban settings that don’t lend themselves to quiet contemplation. Recent research highlights the detrimental physical and mental health effects of stress and emphasizes the importance of simply knowing how to relax, reflect, and make sense of our lives. At spiritual camps, there is not only ample opportunity for reflection; there is also staff that set a good example of living a balanced life with a healthy pace.
Evidence of opportunities for reflection at camp may include:
- Programs in meditation, yoga, or what is generally referred to as “wellness”
- Nature paths that are accessible to campers during free time
- Activity offerings such as hiking and nature education that help children feel connected to beautiful natural surroundings
- A scheduled, daily rest hour that staff and campers use for resting, writing letters, or journaling
Natural Beauty: Many of the most transcendent spiritual experiences people have are a direct function of their environment. For some children and adults, this can only mean the interior of a religious building. But for many others, it’s as simple as living among trees, flowers, birds, and other wildlife; as bracing as living with dramatic changes in the weather; and as liberating as taking a break from most electronic technology.
Evidence of an emphasis on natural beauty at camp may include:
- A well-maintained but rustic property, with minimal paving and maximum foliage
- The absence of distracting electronic technologies, such as cell phones, video games, and computers
- An emphasis on people power to maintain and navigate the natural world, including campers’ participation in daily chores to help maintain property, and a prohibition against cars and golf carts on camp grounds
- Environmentally friendly practices, such as recycling and wildlife preservation
Connection with the Past: Any organization labels current practices “traditional,” even if they started last year. But at camps, the enduring traditions are those that meaningfully connect current practices to past experiences. Those are the true spiritual traditions. Some camps in the United States and Canada have been in continuous operation for more than 100 years; others have been around for only a few decades. At spiritual camps, both young and old, the emphasis on founding principles or customs adds meaning and value to an otherwise prosaic routine.
Evidence of connections with the past at camp may include:
- Celebration of native peoples and ancient practices. These are not religious events; rather, they are ceremonies such as Woodcraft, the creation of Canadian-American naturalist Earnest Thompson Seton. Woodcraft is an example of one way to educate children about American Indian philosophy and history
- Camp histories, both oral and written. Documenting history is an important way for a camp to learn and grow. It also makes campers and staff appreciate that they are part of something larger than themselves; a deeply spiritual realization
- Decorating camp buildings with archival material, such as old camp photos and memorabilia. When campers can see boys and girls who came before them, their sense of responsibility and belonging to camp greatly increases
What are the benefits of these and other spiritual components at camp? There are many, of course, including a stronger sense of community, healthier campers and staff, and more meaningful relationships. Spiritual growth at camp also forges loyalty, which keeps campers and staff returning year after year. And perhaps nothing bolsters a camp’s power to achieve its stated mission more than a lasting devotion. The secret, then, about spirituality and camp is that, for millions of people, spirituality is camp.