kids at religious campLearning upbeat, faith-based songs is just one thing that delights Jill about her children’s Catholic day camp. Lisa sends her children to a Jewish sleep-away camp; its religious education program is “far from classroom teaching,” she said. And last summer, Kim’s 6-year-old loved attending what Kim called “Christian Vacation Bible School.”

All three New Jersey moms agree: religious summer camps are a fun-filled way for kids to frolic with other children and learn about their faith. In addition to offering many traditional camp activities, faith-based camps promote cultural awareness, help develop good values, and nurture healthy relationships through informal religious instruction and worship opportunities. Camps incorporate these elements in different ways. 

Cultural Awareness

The camp Lisa chose for her children offers typical activities like sports, swimming, and hiking. Lisa likes that the camp helps her children “build a strong Jewish identity” by infusing Judaism into all aspects of camp life. Jewish lessons are woven into hands-on, interactive activities, and worship opportunities are provided.

Another Jewish camp intermingles cultural and religious elements with outdoor pastimes like archery and athletics. Some parts of the day are referred to by their Hebrew word. Cultural activities are led by Israeli counselors. Blessings are said before and after meals and a 10-minute prayer service is held each morning.

Good Values

In addition to games, free play, and the end-of-session show the children perform for parents, the summer program Kim’s daughter attended had daily arts and crafts with a faith-based or moral theme, such as sharing.

One Christian day camp in central Jersey offers gymnastics, cooking, dance, and a variety of sports. Each day begins with a short prayer service, including an ethics-based lesson on a topic like bullying or kindness. Non-Christian campers have the option of going outside with a counselor in lieu of participating in the service. This camp isn’t alone in accepting children of different backgrounds. According to Adam Weinstein, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, most ACA-accredited religious camps “welcome children and staff from all religions and faiths.”

One New Jersey camp director said that although not specifically religious, his camp encourages and promotes generic spiritual values, such as respect for the environment, in line with a Native American influence. The goal is to help the children “make good choices and learn respect.” 

Forming Relationships

“The program is a delight,” says Jill, referring to the camp her children attend. Among other activities, it includes music, arts and crafts about biblical themes, and opportunities for older campers to be of service by helping the younger children. One highlight was a visit by Franciscan friars who talked about their lifestyle, played guitar, sang songs, and played basketball with the campers. 

Jill—who homeschools her children—said forming relationships is an important aspect of the camp experience. She appreciates that her children are “forming or reconnecting with friends who understand and share their faith, and whose parents are guiding them in developing the same values we hold dear.” Similarly, Lisa feels her children’s camp helped them build “relationships that will last for the rest of their lives.” ‚Ä®‚Ä®Disadvantages

Only Kim expressed a regret: her daughter didn’t want to come home. Apparently, the one-week program wasn’t long enough. “What’s not to like?” Kim asked. “They have fun and it reinforces good values.”

How to Find the Right Camp

Starting your search

Check with your church or temple, or see if a nearby religious school has a summer program. Ask friends and family. Consult newspapers, magazines, and community bulletin boards. Search online. The American Camp Association of NY and NJ provides a listing of both traditional and religious camps: 800-777-CAMP (2267). We profile hundreds of camps on our site, too.

Making a final selection

Some camps offer tours and open houses. If possible, speak to the camp director personally before you enroll your child. Make sure the camp’s program and philosophy match your goals. Ask questions that are specific to your child’s needs: allergies, social skills, health concerns, etc. Ask about the background and training of staff members and about the camper-to-counselor/staff ratio. And don’t be afraid to ask for references. 

Keep in mind that some camps offer early-enrollment discounts.  Others offer financial assistance or “camper-ships.” Summer programs offered by local houses of worship may be a less expensive alternative as they’re sometimes staffed by volunteers. With a little footwork, you’ll find an affordable camp that will offer your child a summer experience that’s faith-filled AND fun.

Barbara Hosbach is a freelance writer from Jackson. Her first book, Fools, Liars, Cheaters & Other Bible Heroes (Franciscan Media), will be published this month.

Do you think a religious camp might be a good option for your child? Why or why not?