Meaning at the Margins

A camp director in China asked me how our program, our daily schedule, creates meaning for our kids. (These are fun conversations while hiking the Great Wall….)

I thought a moment and answered, “It doesn’t. Meaning is built at the margins.”

It’s true.

Meaning at Camp

Anyone who tells you how they teach tennis or waterskiing or ceramics builds character or meaning is wrong. Sure, our campers improve skills that way. And realizing they’ve developed or deepened a skill will increase that kid’s confidence.

This is a wonderful, important outcome. But character? The instillation of meaning?


Parents, think about how you developed character in your life. You did not sit in a class called ‘character development.’ (Or, if you did, you probably didn’t listen much.) You did not have a paid professional bearing down on you.

Rather, you had parents, teachers, volunteers, rabbis, priests, books, friends, mentors, poems, etc.

You took in information over your lifetime. At certain moments, some one or some thing prompted you to think: This is important. This is wrong and I have to do something about it. I need to remember this.

Building Meaning

Character is built this way. Drip by drip. Mentor by mentor. Examined experience by examined experience. It takes time… and effort. Meaning comes only to those open to changing their way of thinking and behaving.

This is why camp is so important for our kids.

Our campers are growing and questioning and searching for a way to become. They are washed in playful connection with other kids, surrounded by mentors interested in serving, and reminded of meaning… at the margins of their day.

Once a week at campfire. Each night before they go to bed and have some quiet time for reflection. At the flagpole celebrating, with the whole community, that day’s small victories over self-involvement.

Our kids are open to these moments of meaning because the whole experience has built trust.

Campers see with their eyes the actions of the staff and older campers. They hear with their ears words and cheers. They overcome hesitation and playfully participate.

And, when they are ready, they awaken to the meaning infused in the moment. Whether it comes in the form of a question, a smile, a memory, or a story, the meaning is there… but always at the margins.

Have a great week!