"Hygge": Creating the Feeling of Home

Many years ago now (nine!), I was studying abroad in Spain.  I had a co-counselor from the previous summer (shout-out to Sarah Mitchiner) who was studying at the same time in Copenhagen, Denmark.  I found some bargain tickets on Ryan Air (if you haven’t flown on Ryan Air, it is basically like flying on a plane made by Little Tikes), and went to Copenhagen for a weekend in early December.  It was a magical, magical destination!  To make it even better, it was right before Christmas, and everything was so warm and inviting—even though it was a completely foreign country to me, it had a feeling of home. 

A photo I took on my 2006 trip of Nyhavn, a famous 17th century canal and entertainment district in downtown Copenhagen.

A photo I took on my 2006 trip of Nyhavn, a famous 17th century canal and entertainment district in downtown Copenhagen.

I learned quickly from Sarah that there is a concept in Denmark that does not have a direct translation in English.  The word for this concept in Danish is “hygge”, which is pronounced “hooga”.  It kind of means to be cozy, but that does not quite cover it.  It’s almost like a physical and emotional version of cozy.  The Danish tourism website (www.visitdenmark.com) has this definition of the word: “Hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.  The warm glow of candlelight is hygge.  Friends and family—that’s hygge too.  There’s nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing big and small things in life.  Perhaps hygge explains why Danes are the happiest people in the world?”  

Yes!  No wonder I like the feeling of hygge in Denmark.  It is the feeling of camp.

The reason I bring this up is because hygge in Denmark is intentional.  It’s a defined aspect of their culture—heck, it’s featured on the tourism website.  I think camps do hygge really well, but many could do it better.  All of us can think about it more.  Hygge needs to be a part of our camp culture, a part of it that we teach, model and define. 

When kids come to camp, it becomes their home.  To achieve our goals, the camp itself must be physical and emotionally cozy.  It needs to be a safe place where campers (and staff) can set aside their worries and connect with each other face-to-face, enjoying the good things in life with good people.  It is in this type of environment that people young and old can thrive and are able to be the best versions of themselves.

Since I want to make this blog actionable for you, here is a short list of how to pump up the hygge in your camp life:

In the cabin. 

Encourage campers and counselors to decorate the cabin interiors and exteriors together.  Encourage counselors to have welcoming decorations (cabin signs, banners, etc.) before campers arrive, and let the counselors have the freedom to guide the campers to “nest” in the cabin environment.  One of the most hygge cabins I have seen was one for our youngest girls: They had an entire house and fort constructed in one nook for all of their stuffed animals.  For them, creating coziness also meant that their animals were included and had become friends just like they had become friends.  For older campers, could this mean hammocks outside the cabin, novelty lights or peace flags hung in the rafters or art hung on the walls?  Yes.  Give campers the freedom and the time to make their cabins and the space around their cabins their own.

Brienne and I had fun creating our very hygge cabin (...er, hallway...) in 2007.  

Brienne and I had fun creating our very hygge cabin (...er, hallway...) in 2007.  

In construction:

This is tough.  Oftentimes when building a new project, we want everything to be crisp and new (and also functional).  However, the rustic aspects of camp must be honored.  There are many beautiful camp facilities that are winterized that still maintain the rustic roots of the past, such as the dining hall at Frost Valley

That balcony! Stone fireplace! Exposed wooden rafters!  High ceilings!  Swoon!

That balcony! Stone fireplace! Exposed wooden rafters!  High ceilings!  Swoon!

Make sure your architect understands the aesthetic of camp in general, and the aesthetic of your particular camp.  I realized that many of us have camps where buildings have been added on throughout the years in a multitude of styles (hello, cinderblock, woodframe construction and something weird the caretaker made from scraps).  However, when we have the opportunity to match the aesthetic of our camp but just make some upgrades, the hygge theme shines through.  My favorite architect to work with is David Bona.  Check out his work for a brand new lodge at YMCA Camp Birkett (http://www.davidbonaarchitect.com/#!birkett/c1ztz).   Please don’t drywall.  Please preserve old stone fireplaces.  Please hang pictures on the walls and old wood plaques and take the time to really make all buildings feel like home. 

This doesn't just count for new construction.  McGaw YMCA Camp Echo has retrofitted some cabins to be much more hygge.  Again, fireplace, wooden construction details (including the awesome bunk beds).

This doesn't just count for new construction.  McGaw YMCA Camp Echo has retrofitted some cabins to be much more hygge.  Again, fireplace, wooden construction details (including the awesome bunk beds).

 In construction, part 2.

When the director prior to me at Camp Al-Gon-Quian oversaw the dining hall expansion (hi, Becca Schnetzer!), she realized that she also needed double the tables and benches for our increased capacity.  She took one of our old tables and one of our old benches to a local woodcraftsman.  He was able to duplicate the table and benches almost exactly, and those were the ones that filled our new dining hall.  The old side, down to the furnishings, was almost exactly duplicated on the new side.  That first summer, even though the new side was just built, it still had that feeling of hygge, where campers felt like they were a part of generations of good people that had filled that very space.

In signage

Full disclosure: I love creating custom signs (and have a side hustle doing it).  So maybe I’m a little biased.  But all camp directors have someone on their staff who is a talented or semi-talented signmaker.  Whenever possible, have your signs be handmade!  It adds such a feeling of home to a camp.  I will be honest here and say I hate it when camps have signs that are generically printed (like to label things in the dining hall or to share information with campers about the environment).  It is so institutional.  You'd never have that in your home!  Invest in a little laminator (my favorite type is less than $36 on Amazon!) and just make these in-house.  It adds an extra element of care.  I know I can feel it.

A favorite camp sign by yours truly.  I can kinda paint in Verdana...

A favorite camp sign by yours truly.  I can kinda paint in Verdana...

In signage, part 2.

With the YMCA rebranding efforts and other practicalities, we do not have the luxury of making all of our signs and documents ourselves.  However, think creatively how you can add some extra coziness to your materials that are printed.  I think YMCA Camp Tecumseh has done a great job with these nametags: 

In training.

I have a lot of camp theories.  But a big theory I like to push at camp during training and for the staff is creating the feeling of home.  This is a powerful, powerful challenge.  Many campers have wonderful home lives.  However, many of our campers do not.  It is an amazing gift to give to all of our campers to create camp as a place where they feel at home.  A place where they are respected, feel safe, can grow and have people who care about them.  And no matter how “annoying” or “difficult” a camper is, he or she deserves that gift, and may not get that gift anywhere else.  During training, have this discussion.  Incorporate difficult topics: race, income, ability.  Ask your staff when and where they have felt at home.  Challenge them to re-create that type of environment for their kids.

Campers should GLOW when they are at camp or think about camp!

Campers should GLOW when they are at camp or think about camp!

In planning.

For you, as the director, have this on your mind.  Yes, think about the small things that you can do to make your camp feel more like home.  Think about making a little extra space in your budget like Becca did for those tables and benches.  But also think about who you are hiring, because the concept of hygge comes down to the people.  Think to yourself, if I was sick, would I want to be stuck with this person in the infirmary for 24 hours? Can this person hold a conversation with anyone?  Are they here for the right reasons?  Does my greater staff base reflect my camper base?  Do I have a group of “cool counselors” and a group of “outsiders”?  Do I have a group of “cool” campers, “tough” campers, and kids that we don’t pay any attention to?  Are my skits and songs respectful, or does my camp slide into stereotypes?  Do we have staff members of color?  Are there people of color in leadership positions?  Are there women in leadership positions?  If we don’t, are we working hard to change those things? (much more on this later).

At Camp Al-Gon-Quian, we always said that if you strip everything away, and we had to have camp in a parking lot, camp would still be awesome.  Even though the beautiful natural environment, amazing buildings and handmade signs enhanced hygge, the people made it happen.  So remember, hygge comes down to the feeling you have when you’re with people you love and who love you.  Let’s give that to the campers and staff each summer by keeping it our top priority.

P.S. Have a hygge thanksgiving!

P.S. Have a hygge thanksgiving!