How to Do Kids’ Discipleship in the Woods
In the world of high-energy, high-entertainment Vacation Bible Schools and summer kids camps, “Wild Wonder” stands out as an un-flashy alternative, incorporating quiet activities like bird watching and nature observation alongside music and games. Developed by the Christian conservation organization A Rocha USA, Wild Wonder’s new program explores environmental stewardship and spiritual formation in the context of the outdoors.
“The main vision behind the camp is that we want kids to know they are beloved creations,” says A Rocha’s curriculum manager Flo Oakes. “We call it creation care camp, but we are God’s creations and we want kids to know that God loves us each deeply.”
CT spoke with Oakes to learn more about Wild Wonder’s unique approach to discipleship in the woods.
Your curriculum delves deep into theology with kids, from themes of God as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer to the idea of the new heavens and the new earth. What drives this theological focus?
Among many Christians, there is a lingering idea that goes all the way back to the early heresy of Gnosticism. It’s the idea that earthly things—matter, stuff, our bodies, anything physical—are inferior and that the only thing to hope for is a heavenly place we’ll get to someday. I think some Christians have a hard time with environmental conservation because they’ve been taught to ask, “Well, why does it even matter? It’s just the earth.”
To be clear, our motive in creating this camp wasn’t “we’re going to make a green, environmental VBS where we just teach kids how to take care of the earth.” There’s no deeper meaning in that—essentially, it’s just teaching kids more rules.
For me, creation care is completely a spiritual issue because it’s a protest against that gnostic idea—that the physical world doesn’t matter and that only the heavenly world matters. Instead, we are saying, “No, all of it matters. God is going to redeem all of it.” He made it; he loves it; he called it good. All of creation suffered under the Fall and suffers under the brokenness of sin, but God will one day redeem and restore it. How can we participate in that now?
As the name suggests, igniting a sense of wonder within kids is a central part of your vision. How, specifically, do you go about that?
A few years ago I met one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry. I’ll never forget one thing he said: “Why should the butterfly be so extravagant?” That sentence has shaped so many things for me. It’s the heart of wondering over God’s creation.
A lot of the camp program is based on what I’ve experienced, translated to a kid level. For myself, when I’m in a place of doubt spiritually—which is also something kids can experience—my favorite place to visit is the butterfly and chrysalis exhibit at our zoo. The monarch butterfly chrysalis is mint green and it looks like someone took a paintbrush and painted gold dots all around the top. It evokes an emotional response in me because it’s like God is revealing himself in that tiny chrysalis.
When I was first studying biology, I remember looking at diatoms under a microscope. Diatoms are these little single-celled algae at the bottom of the ocean. Under a microscope, they look exactly like jewels. Who even sees them? Who even cares? And the answer is God. God made the butterfly extravagant and the diatoms breathtakingly gorgeous. In our Wild Wonder camp, we talk about diatoms because I think it’s so important to know that all of this points to a loving, creative, imaginative God. That’s what wonder is to me.
Alongside creation care, you emphasize helping children understand themselves as God’s beloved creations. Why is this idea of belovedness so important in kids’ spiritual formation?
It can be a real danger in children’s ministry that we condescend to kids and treat them like their spirituality is something that will happen someday, something that we’re responsible for instead of something that they are experiencing right now.
Instead, we can treat children like they’re already beloved creatures of God who have their own unique relationship with God. When we think of kids this way, it changes how we interact with them and it changes their view of themselves. When they know their worth is in God, when they know how beloved they are, they feel an inherent value—that they are image bearers.
The camp incorporates a lot of science.
I love hearing the stories from parents about their kids coming home from camp and relaying really highly scientific information. I know one child who went home and explained to his parents how DNA works—he’d extracted DNA from a strawberry at camp that day. I love it that he had the joy and excitement of being at camp, singing songs about God and knowing God, and also coming home and explaining DNA to his mom.
Does the program take a particular position on evolution or other issues in the faith-and-science debate? How do leaders address the questions that inevitably come up?
As an organization, we encompass a vast variety of beliefs on these matters. We also do not address them directly in our camp curriculum. Rather than focusing on how or when God created the world, we just focus on the truth that he created it and he loves all things that he made. In our director’s guide, we make clear that churches have the freedom to adapt the curriculum. It’s really up to the particular church to determine how they feel is the best way to handle those issues.
But I do think it’s important to say that I hope by holding space for both scientific study and nature observation at a church—by integrating science and faith formation—that kids won’t be afraid of either science or faith as they get older. My hope is that they would see them as compatible and that they would not have the same crisis a lot of kids have as they grow older and start to view science and faith as at odds. I hope that the experience of being at church and holding strawberry DNA would plant the long-term seeds of seeing how faith and science are integrated.
As your director’s guide notes, kids today “are spending less time outdoors, have high amounts of screen time, and are simply not benefitting from meaningful engagement with nature.” We’re all familiar with how these habits can have a negative impact on kids’ emotional, social, and intellectual development. But how do you see them impacting kids spiritually?
In an earlier era, when a child or teenager had a difficult day or something big happened in their life, they often had time and space to just sit with their pain and disappointment. But today, with screens and social media, young people can just put it out into the world and get back an immediate response, perhaps from hundreds of people.
There’s something lost there. There seems to be no space, any longer, to sit in an experience—to sit in the space of meeting with God, whether it’s wrestling with God or questioning or doubting or perhaps praising and thanking him.
In camp, we try to provide a slow space for kids to interact with God. The Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Part of what this means is we can go out in nature to have space and time to just be, to hear his voice, to talk back to him.
When we are outside, we are practicing our “paying attention” muscles. We may be listening for birds or noticing the leaves have changed colors. Those habits of paying attention in nature translate to paying attention to God’s voice.
Two aspects of this program that strike me as particularly countercultural are the daily feasts and the nature breaks. Tell us more about these activities and the purpose behind them.
We have a 20- to 30-minute daily snack time, but instead of it being Goldfish crackers on a paper towel on a child’s lap, we set a big, long table with real tablecloths, real napkins and little plates, and serve really good food like fresh bread, butter and jam, berries and cheese. It looks like a beautiful feast.
The idea for the daily feast started with a children’s minister in Nashville named Grace Spriggs. One morning before camp, a little girl walked up to Grace as she was finishing up some things on the table. The little girl said something like, “Whoa! Who is this for? What is this?” Grace said, “Oh, this is our table, this is the feast, and it’s for you.” The little girl said something like, “Oh, I thought it was for somebody important.” And Grace was able to say, “Yes, it is. You are important.”
Valuing children is one of the main ideas of the feast. Also, it’s the idea that good, real, tangible beauty at a table is something that can point us toward the Feast that’s to come. This is one way we can enforce the idea that we are a body of believers that gathers around a table to remember what Jesus did for us and that we all share in this communion together.
And what about the daily nature breaks?
We have various stations in our camp every day. There might be a nature observation like a hike or a bird-watching time, there might be some hands-on science, and there will probably be some fun and games. But the daily nature break is one little moment of just sitting in quietness, being still, and resting. Kids sit or lie on a big blanket during a Bible reading or a devotional, and we may incorporate a bit of listening to birds or paying attention to what they see around them.
The nature break is intentional time to give kids the space they need to sit with their thoughts and with Scripture or in prayer. These are the moments when they are going to meet God and respond to God.
Some parents might be thinking, “Oh, my child couldn’t do that,” or “I know my child would get bored.” How have you seen these nature breaks have a meaningful impact on kids?
To be honest, almost every volunteer or facilitator I’ve spoken with has been really nervous about this part of camp—because we know kids and we know they’re not all going to be quiet! But the nature break doesn’t have to be perfect; we can be okay with the squirming or noise some kids may make. And as leaders and kids experience it, they often discover that the kids really are capable of sitting still and listening.
When kids do the nature breaks or other quieter experiences, there’s a framework to the quietness; we aim to ask the kinds of questions that may not have specific answers. For example, we might say, “I wonder why God would make a strawberry taste so sweet. I wonder why?” There’s no “correct spiritual answer” to that question.
What principles would you share with parents about how they can prioritize wonder and cultivate meaningful spiritual formation in their kids’ lives?
The two words that have come back to me over and over again are pay attention. When you’re with your kids and you see a bird that’s beautiful, it’s easy to walk right by and not have a conversation. Instead, parents might simply point at it and say, “Look at that.” And looking at things, paying attention, can prompt all manner of spiritual discussions.
Another important idea is taking kids seriously, listening to their questions, and not feeling like you always have to have an answer. Rather than providing an answer, it could be an opportunity to look into Scripture together. It could be an opportunity to see what my child thinks. Because maybe she’s thought of something I’ve never thought of, or maybe she sees it differently, or perhaps she just has this clear window into God’s heart and what he’s saying. I’m learning that practicing being a little quieter as parents and just diving in together—especially now as my kids have gotten older—is more important than ever.