Spiritual Places for Children: Creating Sacred Time and Space at Camp

Ronald Furst, MEd

Religious education directors of al l branches of organized religions struggle to develop programs that truly affect the inner life of children. Many exist with the main purpose of offering a Sunday/Saturday religious education program for children during religious services, so that parents can join other adults in religious worship. Some are committed to teaching religious doctrine and customs leading up to some sort of confirmation or rite of passage into adult life. Most of these programs exist in the midst of an adult world in large, impressive buildings, taught by adults with specific goals in mind. Children pick up on the game and soon learn how to respond to the lessons in ways that please adults. Religious teachers and parent volunteers feel satisfaction that they are helping these young souls become civilized members of a God-fearing society. However, in my experience talking with these children, I discovered that many feel their job is really one of pleasing parents, not of discovering a spiritual connection for themselves or their community.

The rustic, natural setting of a chil¬dren’s summer camp can provide a better environment for creating a spiritual place for children. A simple chapel in the woods surrounded by lakes, trees, birds, and chipmunks is a more believable place of worship for children. It can be a place so simple that they feel they could have created the chapel themselves with a few hand tools and a group of friends.

Every Sunday morning around 9:30, after bunk cleanup is over, each of our ten bunks of twelve campers and staff make their way to our chapel in the woods. The ten-minute walk down the trail that leads to the chapel seems to bring the campers and counselors into a quiet mood of reverence. They know that they are walking to a spot in the woods that feels sacred to the camp community because of the energy we feel and the honest sharing that goes on while we are there. The entire camp commu¬nity of campers, counselors, nurses, cooks, kitchen staff, and teaching staff are eager to make chapel. It is rare if Mother Nature does not provide a dazzling light show, as the sun’s rays are reflected off the lake and onto the leaves of the maple and birch trees that surround us.

Our service begins with a group meditation designed to bring children and adults into contact with the energy that surrounds them. The experience begins with deep, rhythmic breathing and ends with each person visualizing oneself surrounded by an egg of white light, an energy that they can contact and create for themselves for a feeling of protection and rejuvenation. The community is gently brought back to the present moment as I play soft notes on my Native American flute.

Many of the campers have shared with me that our meditation helps them to relax, feel grounded in their emotions, and find a connection to a positive and protective energy that they can tap into. Following the September 11 attacks on our country, I received numerous e-mails from campers in New York City and elsewhere who shared that they used our meditation to feel comforted and protected and to lessen their anxiety.

Children respond best to simple rituals that provide firsthand results. An outdoor group meditation or visualization done correctly can create an aura of warmth and love that children can feel. The campers enjoy sharing how this meditation gets them out of their heads (with all the social concerns young people feel) and simply centers them within themselves. Children live more in their bodies than their minds. It is difficult for most children to honestly connect to the abstract and supernatural images of the world’s institutionalized religions.

Children also respond well to a visualization that can literally raise their consciousness or inner thoughts to a place where they feel closer to a storehouse of love and peace on an inner, imaginary plane of awareness. While it is true that traditional religious worship can accomplish the same results through the liturgy of communion in Christianity or the opening of the ark housing the Torah in Judaism, for example, the spiritual significance of these age-old ceremonies, when shared in the adult venue of institutional religion, are not always able to affect the consciousness of children.

Our chapel service was transformed into a type of Quaker Friends’ service meeting, where campers are given an opportunity to thank those campers or staff who have helped them in their adjustment to camp life. Returning campers who are accustomed to sharing their personal thoughts and feelings with the community are eager to share the honest gratitude they feel for each other. Some campers even share their personal pain, knowing that the community will support them, while others might ask to be forgiven for acting unkindly or insensitively to another member of the community. Once new campers sense the safety and support of others, they join in as well. Most campers feel deeply about thanking their bunkmates or staff for their emotional support in welcoming them to camp or helping them with their transition from home to camp. It is a powerful experience to create a world for yourself away from your parents.

All children experience some anxiety when they arrive at camp. But once they hear each other talk about their fears of homesickness or concerns of acceptance and making new friends, they accept their feeling as a natural part of adjusting to camp. I have always felt that learning how to tolerate mild anxiety and the small setbacks in life without withdrawing to safe and familiar ground is one of the most important skills needed in leading a healthy and productive life. Our modern society is quick to shield children from learning how to stay focused when faced with moderate amounts of anxiety. A healthy separation from home and the adjustment to being part of the dynamic that a rustic camp environment offers can be a perfect setting to gain those skills, as long as sensitive and caring adults are there to mentor the process.

Our service then moves from sharing gratitude to sharing personal insights that they have learned about themselves while at camp. I am often blown away by the many ways campers share the new ways they now see themselves. They often talk about how different they feel at camp from how they feel at school. Many campers have shared that they feel they have to look or act a certain way to be considered cool at school. But at camp, if you are just yourself, you feel your worth to the community, which translates into being “cool.” It is difficult to grow into adulthood without feeling real support from people you trust. Camp life can provide the perfect setting for that support.

After campers have had a chance to share their gratitude and thoughts, the rest of the forty-minute service is made up of a five-minute talk by the camp director, which is usually centered on one of three themes:

  1. I often encourage them to write home so they can thank their parents for giving them the opportunity of coming to camp. Gratitude needs to be practiced on a daily basis.
  2. I like to remind them about the importance of having happy childhood memories as a foundation in their lives. Camp is not a place to worry about dating, world problems or unrest, or how their parents are getting along without them. Camp is a place to enjoy your childhood with all the innocence, joy, silliness, and warmth you can muster for yourself.
  3. I also remind campers and staff that camp is a place where extraordinary experiences often happen. If you keep your heart open and your mind receptive to new ways of thinking, surely camp will change your way of looking at yourself and life in general.

Our service concludes with the rousing singing of our camp chapel song, “Give Yourself to Love,” followed by an original camp blessing. Campers take their time exiting the chapel area as hugs and smiles are warmly exchanged within the camp community.

Our camp attracts campers from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. With a mix of campers and staff who might define themselves as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian, and atheist, our service needs to reach each person in a meaningful way without offending anyone at the same time. Having the service more nature-oriented with a Quaker emphasis on sharing gratitude or spiritual insights when personally moved to do so has proven to be a way to include everyone in our chapel experience. A meditation that focuses on the experience of inner light — first imagined in one’s heart, expanded to include an egg of light that surrounds the camp community, and finally enlarged to encompass all people and cultures of the Earth — is an image easily acceptable to most people. Children also seem to be more deeply affected by color and light than most adults.

It may take time to develop an honest feeling that Sunday mornings (or Friday evenings) are special and sacred times at camp and that the little chapel by the lake is a sacred place. I would often talk to the camp community about what it means to experience sacred time and space. Chapel was a time to connect deeply to ourselves and to the energy of nature and the creative process of life.

The concept of sacred time and space has been expanded to include our campfires, where music and stories are used, and our end-of-camp Native American-style sweat lodge. The older campers are responsible for collecting firewood in the forest for the fire to heat the rocks and create the steam. The experience is carefully supervised by senior staff to ensure safety.

Once the hot rocks are moved into the round center pit in the sweat lodge, the guardian of the lodge (a senior staff member) leads a short ceremony that includes the use of the herb sage. Campers are given time to share their personal feelings surrounding their camp experiences with the group. The ceremony ends with the singing of special songs and chants related to the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge for each group of twenty-four campers lasts around twenty minutes. Once completed, each group has a quiet dip in the lake to cool down and then silently walks back to their cabins with their counselors. The entire camp community is given a chance to enter the lodge. I have run sweat lodges at our camp for twenty-four summers, and many campers feel it is the highlight of their summer.

Whether or not your camp has the abil¬ity to incorporate these specific techniques for spiritual awareness, what better place than at camp to encourage spirituality in children? The very nature of a camp experience — away from school or familiar social landscapes — can be used to reinforce the concept of sacred time and space. Giving your campers the opportunity to connect to their inner selves and others makes the special experience of camp even more rewarding.

Ronald Furst, MEd, has over forty years of camp experience. He owned and operated Camp Hawthorne in Raymond, Maine, for twenty-five summers and now also works with Windsor Mountain camp in Windsor, New Hampshire. Ron has a master’s degree from Boston University in psychological counseling and is a graduate of Outward Bound School. Ron also works as a camp consultant and can be reached at info@camphawthorne.org.

Originally published in the 2013 July/August Camping Magazine

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