"What Is Camp About?" Campers Share Their Opinions

Marge Scanlin, Ed.D.

"Camp is the only place I can really be me. You know? These kids are my real friends. At home if I wear the wrong color, speak to the wrong person, or say the wrong thing, I lose my friends. Here people accept me for who I am. These are my REAL friends!"


"This is the funnest, most caring environment I’ve ever been in! When at camp, I am totally at ease because of the constant fun activities and the emphasis on self-discovery."

Is this part of the "good" that camp gives? You bet it is!

Today, the youth development world speaks about outcomes, changes in the lives of participants. Can you identify the youth development outcomes that your camp works toward? It is no longer good enough to say what you want to offer campers. To be recognized in youth development circles, camps will need to identify how campers are going to change as a result of the camp experience.

What Are "Outcomes"? Do You Mean "Objectives"?
Think of outcomes as changes in kids’ lives. Objectives frequently tell what a camp is going to provide, for example, the types of activities and the kind of atmosphere. The United Way’s publication Measuring Program Outcomes: A Practical Approach defines outcomes as "benefits or changes that occur in individuals after they participate in our programs. Outcomes related to behavior, skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, condition, or other attributes. They are what participants know, think, or can do; or how they behave; or what their condition is that is different following the program."

What Is Youth Development?
Society has taken differing approaches over time to the challenge of helping youth grow into successful adults. When youth became heavily involved in risky behaviors such as using of drugs and alcohol, dropping out of school, participating in violent behavior, and teenage pregnancy, society responded by funding programs directed at solving those individual problems. In hindsight, researchers and policy makers concluded that the temporary funding of programs for specific problems produced only temporary solutions.

A different approach was required. That newer approach is called youth development. It is a process of developing and building assets in young people that help them deal successfully with the many transitions of adolescence and grow into mature adults both able and willing to contribute to society.

Many camp professionals are familiar with the asset-building approach of Search Institute. Peter Scales, Peter Benson, and others have worked to identify both internal and external assets that contribute to healthy youth development. These assets include concepts such as positive values, positive identity, commitment to learning, social competencies, empowerment, and the constructive use of time.

What Does Youth Development Look Like in Camps?
During the summer of 2000, the American Camping Association sent representatives into nineteen camps in the east and mid-west. These camps included eight day camps, twelve resident camps, three religiously affiliated camps, ten independent camps, and five agency camps. ACA asked directors, staff, and campers to identify what that camp was about. What were its "outcomes"? What changes in behavior or attitude could be seen in campers at the end of the camp session? Do campers and staff have the same understanding, or viewpoint, as directors regarding those outcomes?

This article shares what the campers said. Future articles will share what the staff and the director said. It must be noted that these camps were not randomly selected to mirror ACA’s membership. The intent was to gather data that could supplement other information already available about camp outcomes.

Campers Asked About Camp Experience
The ninety to one hundred campers in the study were selected by the camp directors and were, for the most part, return campers. They ranged in age from nine to fourteen, with most being in the eleven-to-thirteen-year-old range. They were asked to write brief answers to the following questions. Discussion followed starting with these same questions.

  • What do you like best about camp?
  • Why did you come back to camp this year?
  • If you were explaining this camp to friends, what would you say you learned here?
  • Can you think of things you learned and did at camp last summer that helped you at home or at school this year?
  • Do you feel differently about yourself when you are at camp? Tell how.

Campers' responses
All campers were positive about their camp experiences and felt loyal to "their" camp. They planned to return to camp in future summers, and some spoke firmly about their desire to one day be a staff member.

To get at the question of outcomes, directors were asked to identify the outcomes their program was designed to accomplish. Staff were asked to identify the outcomes the camp had for its campers and describe the training they received to accomplish those outcomes.

The ranking of the outcomes as identified by each of the groups is shown in the chart below.

Rank Director's View Staff's View Campers' View
1 Social competence (made new friends, got along better with others, learned to work as a team) Social competence Social competence
2 Increased self-identity (learned what I was good at, could try new things and it was OK to fail, felt good about myself and my abilities) Increased self-identity Learned motor skills
3 Increased positive values (learned to respect others, learned responsibility, learned to stand for what is right) Increased positive values Participated in adventuresome outdoor activities
4 Gained cognitive skills (learned about the outdoors, learned how a camera works, learned about the science of scuba diving) Gained cognitive skills Gained cognitive skills
5 Participated in adventuresome outdoor activities (had a blast, did cool stuff outdoors, went backpacking and river-rafting, learned about the environment) Participated in adventuresome outdoor activities Increased self-identity
6 Learned motor skills (learned scuba, earned an archery award, finished the two-mile swim) Learned motor skills Increased positive values
7 Spiritual growth (learned more about God, enjoyed God’s creation, developed faith and beliefs) Learned from adult role models Spiritual growth
8 Learned from adult role models (the counselors were cool, they helped me a lot, I want to be just like them and work at camp) Spiritual growth Learned from adult role models
9 Served/helped others (helped younger campers, did projects for park) Served/helped others Served/helped others

Comparing the results
When comparing the statements of campers, staff, and directors about the camps’ outcomes, the match between the three was amazingly close for a few camps. However, there were other camps where the view of what camp was about varied greatly. In some camps, there was virtually no relationship between how the three groups viewed the outcomes of the camp experience.

While the list above shows a great deal of similarity between groups, it must be remembered that it represents views of the various groups overall. When staff and campers from the same camp identified different kinds of outcomes as primary, we concluded that the participants in that particular camp viewed the purpose of the camp quite differently.

Proposed National Study
These preliminary results are being used to help ACA determine the outcomes on which to focus their 2002 national study of youth development outcomes in camps. Between now and then, instruments will be developed and tested by an independent research firm experienced in youth development outcomes (Philliber Research Associates from St. Louis, Missouri). Once developed, the instrument will be field tested in camps in the summer of 2001 by Philliber. Final revisions will be made and the actual study will occur in the summer of 2002 with a randomly selected sample of ACA-accredited camps from across the country.

The study will analyze what outcomes camps are building into their programs and seeking for their campers. Further measurement will assess the degree of success in achieving those outcomes as viewed by the campers, their counselors, and the parents, including a follow-up study of parents and campers six months after the camp session. In addition, a comparison group of children who do not go to camp will be studied to help determine what, if any, impact the camp experience has on children.

Regional and section workshops are now being offered to help camp directors understand, strengthen, and implement youth development language and philosophy into their camp program. Get involved and help show that "Camp Gives Kids a World of Good. ®"

Marge Scanlin, Ed.D., is officer of operations for the American Camping Association. She is leading ACA’s research project on youth development outcomes in camps.

Originally published in the 2001 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.