Spirituality At Camp

By Chris Thurber

The first camp directors were iconoclasts, a description that seems rather unspiritual. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of shying away from the spiritual aspects of camp, they embraced the beauty of rustic settings, the simplicity of living in nature with minimal technology and the fellowship that inevitably developed. It’s no surprise then that the first camp directors also inserted daily Bible study in their programs. Religious practices fit the mood. These 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 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 type (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 what about the type of spiritual growth that transcends a particular religion or denomination? What is it about camp that promotes spirituality?

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.

Children learn how to share in preschool, but how well do they practice it now? How many invite an unpopular kid to a birthday party, or give some really good toys and clothes to charity? At particularly spiritual camps, sharing goes beyond letting someone else use your stuff. It includes reaching out to share yourself--your time, skills or smile--with others. It involves cultivating the ability to detect who is most in need. It also involves disclosure. Sharing thoughts and feelings with others is the fastest, surest way to cultivate close relationships. And relationships, with other people, with nature, and even with some higher power, fuel our spiritual life.

Evidence of sharing 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 the children’s own experiences and learning what’s most important to him or her
  • Frequent encouragement to include all campers in activities, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds.

The pace of life sometimes eclipses opportunities to reflect. Like their parents, children today are accustomed to being overscheduled, rushing from one activity to another. They watch films and television, and play video games at a frenetic pace. And many live in noisy, urban settings that don’t lend themselves to quiet contemplation. Yet 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 particularly spiritual camps, there is not only ample opportunity for reflection, but also staff members who set a good example of living a balanced life with a healthy pace.

  • Evidence of opportunities for reflection may include:
  • Programs in meditation, yoga or what is generally referred to as wellness
  • Nature paths that are accessible to campers during free time
  • Activities, such as hiking and nature education, that help children feel connected to natural surroundings
  • A scheduled, daily rest hour that staff and campers use for sleeping, 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, and as liberating as taking a break from most electronic technology.

  • Evidence of an emphasis on natural beauty may include:
  • A well-maintained but rustic property with minimal paving and maximal 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, such as campers’ participation in daily chores that help maintain the property and a prohibition against cars and golf carts in camp
  • Environmentally friendly practices, such as recycling and wildlife preservation.

Connection With The Past
Most organizations label current practices “traditions,” 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 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 just a few decades. At spiritual camps, both older and more recent, the emphasis on founding principles or customs adds meaning and import to an otherwise prosaic routine.

Evidence of connections with the past 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, that 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 members appreciate that they are part of something larger than themselves. This can be a deeply spiritual realization.
  • Decorating camp buildings with archival material, such as old camp photos and memorabilia. When campers can actually see those boys and girls who came before them, their sense of responsibility and belongingness 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 this type of lasting devotion. The secret, then, about spirituality and camp is that, for millions of people, spirituality is camp.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the author of The Summer Camp Handbook and the co-founder of Expert Online Training, which hosts video training modules for camp staff. He serves as school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and waterfront director at Camp Belknap. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.