These days many kids scarcely see the outside world. I babysit one family that loads and unloads the kids into the car in the garage. Yes, they make the short walk from the car into school in the morning and back in the afternoon, but it is hurried and allows no time for lingering, for exploring, or for appreciating.
Schools still have recess, but here in the United States in the years since the No Child Left Behind Act, more and more time is being devoted to academics at the cost of P.E. and outside playtime. Not only have kids spent most of their school day inside, when they get home, they are either doing homework or are glued to a screen. This pattern not only comes at the cost of their physical health, it also comes at the cost of their spiritual health.
In contrast, much of summer camp meets outside. To start, many campers sleep in little more than screened platforms. Even cabins are usually thin and not very well insulated. Fresh air and light –not to mention the sounds of birds and other critters scurrying around—seep in the cracks. Bathing often happens in the camp lake or in open air showers. Most activities are outside and even the arts and crafts often take place at outside tables or in barns or sheds where the door stands open all day. Lessons often focus on or use the natural materials found right in the surrounding area. Many camps end the day with a campfire, allowing children to feel the night settle around them and to be awed by a blanket of stars as they walk back to their cabins.
At camp, children have the time and space to connect to the natural world, to be aware of things growing, of the lives of different species beside themselves. For many kids, the experiences of being dwarfed by a redwood tree hundreds of years old or captivated by the beauty of the trembling birch leaves or caught up in the peace of the rising sun gleaming on a still-as-glass lake are the only spiritual reflection they will do all year. It is only then that they are close enough to nature to be both humbled and inspired by its beauty, its diversity, and its eternity.
In listening to the sounds of the outside world, the pressure of the internal monologue of Am I good enough, smart enough, successful enough quiets. The monkey mind that keeps our children anxious and fearful slows down and empties out. Lying in the grass watching the clouds roll by frees up kids’ imaginations. Their thoughts are permitted to drift and dream. At camp, their lives are not a checklist of things they have to do. Instead, their days have been filled with sensations—sand between their toes, water running over their skin, fresh pine filling their lungs.
Even if we do not have time to be in nature with our kids, we can use summer camp to give them that gift.