Bringing out the Best: Why Summer Camp Transforms

The importance of stillness in the midst of movement

Wayne Meisel is the Director of the Center for Faith and Service at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and served as the founding President of the Bonner Foundation. As a Presidential appointee to the Commission on National and Community Service, Meisel served as one of the architects of the AmeriCorps programs and also as a charter board member of Teach for America and Playworks. 

I loved recess. When I was young, schools didn’t have a name for Attention Deficit Disorder, much less tolerance for it. So running out to the playground, where I could play four-square, dodge bullies and try to get the attention of girls, is what I lived for. Sure, it was fun—in part because it wasn’t math class and in part because we could move. But as much as I liked recess, I can’t really say I learned anything.

I also loved camp. It was definitely not math class, and I got to run around there too—just like recess. It might seem like the two are alike; the movement and the volume are certainly shared. But while recess was fun, summer camp was transformative. 

There’s often a language barrier of sorts between people who went to summer camp and those who did not. Those who did not are often confused by the way former campers talk about their summers, about how they grew up and how camp was a defining experience in their lives. Not high school, not the local congregation, not college, but summer camp.

So what is it about summer camp that makes it so special? 

One of the key factors that makes summer camp transformative is not the activity and the noise that goes along with it, but the stillness and the silence that occurs at small moments throughout the day. Ninety-five percent of the day is likely to occur while standing on your feet or flat out asleep. But the most significant part of the day is the five percent pause that happens just before you eat a meal, after an event or a game, or just before lights-out.

It is in these still moments at camp when one can reflect, conversation starts, experience is shared and change begins to happen. Out of the stillness, the conversation, and the discovery, campers become true friends with one another, camp counselors serve as life changing mentors, camp directors demonstrate life-shaping leadership examples and together, everyone explores the mystery of faith. Vulnerabilities are shared, strengths are identified, self-confidence found and self-worth identified. The transformation can happen in a moment and impact a lifetime of choices, relationships and identity. 

I was recently trying to explain this to someone who didn’t go to camp. He asked what the conversations at camp were like. Not wanting to rely on just my own experience, I turned to current and former campers and counselors and asked them to remember what questions were asked at morning gatherings, at council rings, and camp fires, at planned conversations and in cabins just before lights out. The majority of the questions revolved around four themes: self, the environment, community, and spiritual exploration.

After compiling the different responses, we came up with a list of twenty-eight questions that counselors were using to help guide these transformative conversations. To make the resource accessible to camp leaders, we took those questions and turned them into a deck of cards. They are meant to be used throughout camp, wherever conversation happens. To read the twenty-eight questions or to order a deck of Camp Cards, go to www.faith3.org/resources/.

You don’t have to go to camp this summer to use the cards. If camp transformed so many of us as kids and young adults, maybe, just maybe, the questions that we were asked at camp back then are worth asking again now. It is impossible to recreate summer camp experience through a deck of cards, but reading the questions on the cards during a moment of stillness and silence in your own life might offer new or renewed transformation. 

The Center for Faith and Service publishes an annual list of Summer Camps that Change the World. On June 9, 2016, The Center announced The Class of 2016, Summer Camps that Change the World. To view the list, or to learn more about Summer Camps that Change the World, visit www.faith3.org/summer-camp/ or read the press release.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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