Educating Freethinking Kids – Lessons From Camp Quest

Cross-posted with permission from Camp Quest.
See Also: Making the World Smaller Through Play


  • Camp Quest is a residential summer camp aimed at the children of nonreligious parents.
  • Camp Quest seeks to help kids develop community and learn critical thinking, scientific inquiry, freethought history, comparative religion, and ethics in a fun, hands-on way.
  • This education happens through formal educational programs and informal conversations between kids – and providing space for discussion between kids is crucial.
  • Balance explicit educational activities with fun.
  • Develop hands-on activities and games to promote critical thought.
  • Use drama and stories to explore freethinking history and culture (see Culture).
  • Provide short (five-minute) lectures on Humanist Heroes (or some other topic) at regular points.

Is the first image that comes to your mind when someone says “education” students sitting at neat rows of desks listening to a teacher?  If so, put it firmly aside for the duration of this article, because that is not what we do at Camp Quest.  It’s also not what I’d advise you to do if you’re looking to put together kids programs for your local atheist, humanist, or freethought group.  In this article, I want to take some of the educational programs and philosophy we have at Camp Quest, and use them to craft some suggestions for local atheist, humanist, and freethought communities trying to start programs for children.

Camp Quest is a network of summer camp programs aimed at kids from non-religious families.  Our goal is to provide a place for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, brights, skeptics, freethinkers, rationalists, and etc. to form a community and learn critical thinking, scientific inquiry, freethought history, comparative religion, and ethics in a fun, hands-on way.  (Note that we welcome campers from religious families to participate as well, although our programs are primarily aimed at the children of nontheists.)  Education at camp happens in two different ways.  The obvious way is through the educational programs and activities that we conduct throughout the week (more on those in a bit), the less obvious way is through the informal discussions the campers have with each other.

Because it’s difficult to measure, I think it’s easy to underestimate the importance of the worldview exploration that happens when kids have a place to talk freely with their peers about their ideas and their experiences.  Many Camp Quest campers do not have friends at school who come from non-religious homes, so meeting other kids from nontheistic families at camp provides a connection that allows for the discussion of topics that campers may avoid with their school friends.  In fact, kids will seek advice from each other on how to explain their beliefs to friends back home who may be trying to “save” them.

I want to highlight the value of this informal education because I want to dispel the notion that freethought programs for kids need to provide formal educational content all the time.  There is a tendency to want to jam pack our programs with lessons and curriculum, and to feel like it’s not enough to simply offer childcare at a meeting or a fun activity for kids unless it includes some kind of explicit freethought content.  On the contrary, there is real value in just providing opportunities for children of group members to get to know each other, run around outside together, play games, and make arts and crafts projects.  As kids come to children’s programs sponsored by your group month after month, they’ll make friends and form a community where they can learn from each other.

As you build a children’s program for your group, you can start adding educational activities into your repertoire.  We’ve found at Camp Quest that it’s important to provide a good balance between educational programs and activities purely for fun, and to mix the educational programs in throughout the day.  We’ve also learned the importance of making our educational programs hands-on.  Teaching through activities makes these programs more engaging for campers, and also is more effective, especially because we are trying to build critical thinking and scientific inquiry skills, as well as curiosity about the world.

One example of a hands-on critical thinking activity that Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert (of The Brights) developed for Camp Quest uses dowsing rods.  We give each camper a bottle of water and a set of dowsing rods – these are simple to make from bent pieces of wire that are inserted into pieces of PVC pipe.  The campers then wander around with their dowsing rods until the rods cross consistently when they are over a bottle of water.  Then we put out four mystery boxes, one of which contains a bottle of water, and each camper individually goes to test each mystery box by passing their dowsing rods over it.  They then whisper to a counselor who is keeping the tally which box they think has the water in it.  When all the campers have reported their results and the tally is revealed, the results wind up being completely chance with approximately one fourth of the campers selecting each of the boxes.  This leads to an opportunity to discuss the scientific method of testing using a blind or double-blind experiment (it’s only double blind if the counselor doing the tallying doesn’t know which box the water is in), and also to explore the pseudoscience of dowsing and talk about why people think it works, and what is actually happening to cause the dowsing rods to cross. (Hint: it works a lot like a Ouija board – no it’s not demons!).

We also do activities that draw out freethinking themes through drama and stories.  One project that works really well with a mixed age group is to put on a skit.  Campers at Camp Quest create and perform skits that answer the “challenges” that counselors put to them at the beginning of camp.  One example of a past challenge was to design a humanist myth.  We explained that a myth was a fictional story that presented a message or moral, and gave campers mythical creatures, magical items, and strange places that had to be included in their story.  Campers came up with skits with morals like being true to yourself, being compassionate to others, encouraging questioning, and not judging a book by its cover.  Another option for a skit activity is to use a story like The Emperor’s New Clothes, or The Ivory Door by A.A. Milne (both great stories about belief and skepticism).  Have a story time, and then ask the kids to create a skit either acting out the story, or based on the ideas in the story.  You can make this simple or complex depending on the time constraints and the age group.

When we have programs that are more lecture-based, we keep them very short, like a five minute talk at each meal time about a few “famous freethinkers” or “humanist heroes.”  The famous freethinkers program lets kids know that there are people who, like their parents, are skeptical of traditional religious claims, and who have also achieved great things in all different fields from science, to government, to sports and the arts.  We draw our famous freethinkers from history as well as from the present.  This is a program that would be easy to integrate into a children’s program at a local group meeting.  Perhaps you could start off the meeting with a “famous freethinker” or an “awesome atheist” that you present to the kids and the adults together before the kids program moves into another room for the majority of the meeting time.  People like Thomas Jefferson, who kids will have learned about in school, but may not know was a freethinker are great choices for this program.  Lance Armstrong, is an example of a contemporary sports and philanthropy figure who is also a freethinker.

To boil this down into a few simple suggestions for those starting children’s programs for atheist, humanist and freethought groups:

  1. Don’t forget that simply getting the kids together to have fun and get to know each other provides important value.  Doing something is much better than doing nothing, and keeping it simple helps you get a program started sooner, and keeps the organizers from burning out.
  2. Keep educational programs interactive.  Kids will only want to return to your program if they are having fun, and they’ll learn more from hands-on activities too, especially when you’re teaching critical thinking.  Balance educational programs with stuff that’s just plain fun.
  3. A five minute program like famous freethinkers can provide continuity from session to session, and build something that brings the kids and adults together for a brief part of the program.  It’s okay to do this as a lecture because you’re keeping it short – five minutes only!

For a more detailed discussion of building a community for freethinking families, check out Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief.  The book includes a lot of activities that we use at Camp Quest, and has an entire chapter devoted to building community.  Raising Freethinkers will also point you to tons of other books, movies, and internet resources that are helpful for freethinking parents and educators of children from atheist, humanist, and other freethinking families.

About Amanda K. Metskas

Amanda K. Metskas is the executive director of Camp Quest, Inc. She has been involved with Camp Quest since 2003, and became executive director in 2007. Currently, Amanda focuses on providing coordination and support services to all of the Camp Quest programs. She is a co-author of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief with Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura and Jan Devor. Amanda holds an M.A. in political science from Ohio State University, and a B.A. in international relations and psychology from Brown University.

One comment on “Educating Freethinking Kids – Lessons From Camp Quest

  1. Pingback: Making the World Smaller Through Play | The Humanist Community Project

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