Rumspringa refers to a period of adolescence for some of the Amish, an Anabaptist Christian subsect. It begins around age 16 and ends when a youth chooses baptism within the Amish church or to leave the community. Not all Amish use this term, but in sects that do, Amish elders generally view it as a time for courtship and finding a spouse.
Rumspringa became a focus of public interest over the past decade, owing largely to "The Devil's Playground," a documentary on the subject, and a controversial 2004 reality TV show entitled "Amish in the City." Both the documentary and the TV program presented Rumspringa by following the experiences of real Amish teens, but the "reality" of what was presented in both instances has been called into question by outspoken members of the Amish community.
Another misconception is that youth who do not join the church will be shunned for the rest of their lives. In fact, those who reject baptism may interact with family and community because they have not broken any religious vows. Only baptized members who later recant will face the shame of shunning. The church does not punish those who leave the faith before baptism.
Another myth suggests that parents encourage or even urge their children to explore the outside world. However, the church did not create Rumspringa as a “time out” when youth can get a taste of modern culture. Rumspringa is simply an old tradition that gives youth more time with their peers on weekends as they begin dating and preparing for adulthood. Third, some portrayals of Rumspringa show Amish youth abandoning their rural homes for wild lives in the city. This is just a myth! The vast majority of Amish teens spend their Rumspringa years living at home.
Sometimes lasting for years, participants live in modern society, what the Amish refer to as, "The Devil's Playground". Throughout their journey, the adolescents are expected to reflect upon whether or not they would like to return to their religion and make a lifetime commitment to the sacrificial lifestyle . Should they return home from the luxuries of technology and temptations of video games, cars, alcohol, drugs and such, they can then be baptized and forever committed to the Amish religion.
The Rumspringa period serves other purposes besides deciding whether to join the church, detailed here and below. One of those purposes is to enter into a more formalized social world and peer interaction, which occurs when joining a youth group. Youth groups vary in their character—some “plainer” or slower groups are tamer, and even adult-supervised, while other “faster” groups are less conservative in expectations and rules. Youth groups typically meet on weekends. In the case of the faster groups, this may mean parties or “band hops”, while with the slower, or “singing” groups as they are called in some communities, meet at the home where church service took place for games of volleyball and group singing. The larger Amish communities may have dozens of youth groups, varying in degree of plainness.
A fling with worldliness reminds Amish youth that they have a choice regarding church membership; however, most of the forces of Amish life funnel them toward church membership. Knowing they have a choice likely strengthens their willingness to obey church standards and, in the long run, the authority of the church itself.
The practice of Rumspringa varies greatly from community to community. Some church districts provide adult supervision, but others do not. Rumspringa as a wild rebellious experience is virtually unknown in some smaller settlements and in certain affiliations. In fact the practice would be suppressed among some Amish subgroups, including many New Order groups.
In many communities, Rumspringa is a period when some Amish youth, boys more than girls, experience greater freedom. They are no longer under the control of their parents on weekends and, because they are not baptized, they are not yet under the authority of the church.
Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania Dutch term, usually translated as "running around" and derived in part from the German word Raum, which means "space" in the sense of outside or outdoors space, room to roam. "Running around outside the bounds" is a more complete translation. During rumspringa, Amish youth — a large percentage of them for the first time in their lives — go on their own in the outside world.
When Amish children turn 16, the rules change. They're encouraged to experiment and explore. The idea is that teens will come back to the church after tasting the modern world. For most, this means a tentative foray — a trip to the local movie theater, or driving lessons. But for some, the experience, called rumspringa, is all about sex, parties and fast cars.
About 80% to 90% of the young people who partake of the liberty to experience the "English World" during Rumspringa eventually make a decision to return to the Amish community and become baptized members of the Church.