Life Lessons

By Ward Wiebe

Regardless of the talent a camper possesses upon arriving at camp, each is destined to be great at something. Whether exploring the lake on hot, sunny days, playing sports on the field, or trying something new—the summer experience is a treasure hunt to discover hidden talents. Every kid goes home holding his or her head a little higher with memories of some type of all-star performance while running around on camp property.

Leaders at Kanakuk—a Christian athletic summer camp in Branson, Mo., founded in 1926—have learned that sports and recreation serve as the perfect tools to develop character in both campers and staff members. Any camp that incorporates fun, teambuilding activities in the great outdoors has the chance to instill life skills that are of monumental value in campers—both on and off the field.

The many recreational activities campers participate in during their time at camp develop confidence and trust, which are crucial for kids to succeed in their schools and future careers. By continually reinforcing an attitude of “big team, little me” through competition, campers of all ages are taught a simple but important lesson: We can’t get through life alone, and we don’t have to. The most joy and success come when we achieve goals with encouraging, reliable teammates by our sides.

Healthy View Of Competition
Competition provides a great opportunity to instill confidence in campers while teaching them how to be gracious and kind, whether they win or lose. Kanakuk uses team activities to emphasize the individual strengths of each camper. Not every camper has the skills to be an all-star quarterback or gymnast, but he or she can bring unique gifts and talents to a team. By celebrating these gifts, campers are encouraged to reach outside their normal comfort zone and try new things.

We help them learn how to push through their fears and insecurities and tackle new challenges in a fun, positive, and encouraging environment.

Sports allow campers to see that they can succeed at something they never dreamed of doing previously.

Experiencing this growth alongside other campers and staff creates close friendships that further reinforce new-found confidence. Changing the perspective on competition at camp can create an entirely new kind of learning experience for campers.

Trust And Faith
Faith can be a difficult and abstract concept for kids to learn when taught with words alone. Sports and adventure provide opportunities for them to experience the value of faith and trust in real life.

A great example of this comes from ropes course challenges, where success requires a tremendous amount of trust. Campers have to trust in a partner to navigate the course, trust the ropes course instructor, have confidence in that wisdom, and trust in themselves to follow through. Navigating the obstacles of the course and then finishing with a 35-foot-high swing helps them face and overcome some of their biggest fears.

In these challenging moments, faith and trust move from being abstract ideas to tangible strengths, putting core values of faith and relationships into action for campers. Dependable staff members—coupled with intentional design and planning—help engineer these life-changing moments.

Winning And Losing With Grace
Character development at camp is not limited to confidence. Experiences in sports and recreation also develop a sense of humility. One of the most critical lessons campers learn through competitive activities is how to humbly win and lose with grace. Learning to lose well can provide some of the best opportunities for growth while campers learn how to celebrate the success of others.

Healthy competition means campers do not play sports for their own glory. Rather, all of their efforts and talents represent Biblical principles. “Total Release” competition has the attitude to honor God and serve others above their own desires for success. Competing with this mindset brings campers an understanding of what winning truly means and a sense of joy and satisfaction that goes far beyond what culture traditionally defines as success.

This perspective ties into another principle at Kanakuk, “I’m Third.” This is defined as putting God first, others second, and oneself third in every area of life. Valuing the accomplishments of others doesn’t come naturally to most, so this is a great place to practice living a selfless attitude.

Train Staff Members
The incredible influence of staff and leadership teams make this model of healthy competition and training through recreation possible. Each camper is known by name and receives consistent encouragement from staff members. This is a huge part of growing in confidence and ability to form beneficial relationships.

To ensure counselors use sports constructively, shared core values and a vision are established. Each staff member hired is committed to help kids grow into dynamic leaders rooted in faith. Sportsmanship, teamwork, and enthusiasm are all concepts leadership helps staff model and reinforce with campers.

A strict hiring process sets the stage for success. We invest 10 days at the beginning of every summer to train staff members in the camp’s mission and the best strategy to encourage campers of all ages and ability levels. This training is the key to the process. When staff members view each camper as unique, valuable, and lovable—the camper notices. This personalized encouragement will develop self-esteem in an entirely new way.

Heading Home
From young, elementary-school-aged students to seniors preparing for college, the challenges kids face in today’s world keep them busy and often stressed or overwhelmed. Athletics provide an outlet for them to just be kids. They have fun, form solid relationships, and make memories, which are catalysts to grow their confidence and leadership abilities.

The value of the summer-camp experience does not end when summer is over. While camp is just a temporary season for kids, we do our best to assure that those lessons and experiences help them through real-life situations when they return home.

Kids can gain a unique perspective on sports when the definition of winning is redefined with a sense of purpose that can carry through every stage of life. We hope every camper who steps through the gates at Kanakuk returns home full of confidence and a sense of security in understanding their God-given talents and abilities.

Ward Wiebe is the K-West Director. He graduated from the University of Kansas and began working for Kanakuk in 1981. He has worked at K-1, K-2, and K-Life in his time with the camp. He is married to Beth, and has two sons. Ward is passionate about seeing people surrender at the foot of the cross and grow in their ministry skills. Reach him at