ACA’s Camp Program Improvement Project: Discovering Program Strategies That Make a Difference

As a follow-up to ACA's Youth Development Outcomes project (2001-2004), the Camp Program Improvement Project is a new ACA capacity-building effort currently progressing in collaboration with Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI).

This project is focused on determining specific camp program strategies that improve the quality of the experience campers receive. The project measures responses of youth to the presence and implementation of "supports and opportunities" deemed necessary to strong youth programming and positive outcomes. We will discover program strategies that strengthen outcomes for youth in camp and other youth programs. Camp program evaluation is being conducted in four areas of supports and opportunities for youth:

  • Supportive Relationships with adults and peers
  • Safety (physical and emotional)
  • Youth Involvement and Participation
  • Skill Building through Challenging/Engaging Activities

Twenty camps are working with Michelle Alberti Gambone, Ph.D., president of YDSI, in this new research endeavor. In the following interview, Michelle shares some of the basics of this new project and what the results will mean to the camp community.

Please explain to us briefly the nature of this research project.
There are two parts to this project. First, the project started with establishing benchmarks for camp performance. We looked at camps from a system-wide point of view. Initially, we collected survey data from eighty camps and 7,600 campers. The camps were reflective of ACA membership, varying by sponsorship, length of session, mixed gender or single gender, etc. Forty camps were taken from the ACA outcomes study, and the other half came from a group of camps that expressed interest in being part of the work. We chose the camps that best matched the characteristics of ACA as an association.

The second phase of the study we call the Program Improvement Pilot (PIP). In this pilot, twenty camps were selected from the original eighty camps. These camps were representative of the whole group. Within this phase of the project, we are interested in examining the supports and opportunities of the camp experience and in understanding the effect of various program strategies on youth perceptions of their camp experience. We view this pilot study as the starting point of a process to reflect even further on the strengths of the camp experience for young people.

In your opinion, how would you explain the difference between our outcomes research efforts and the YDSI research?
There are two specific differences. One difference is that the Program Improvement Pilot (PIP) is focused on improvement. What can camps do to improve the existing experience they offer to campers?

The second distinction is that we were not only intrigued by finding out the benefits of the camp experience, we were interested to know why camps were or were not improving their outcomes. The initial outcomes study, as is true of all such efforts, left us with more questions we now want to answer: What happens from a developmental aspect in camp that helps campers improve and what are the supports and opportunities the camp experience offers campers?

Another variation between the outcomes study and the current pilot is that the outcomes study measured how campers benefited from the camp experience, but the pilot study focuses on the attributes of the camp experience that cause success or even failure among the camper population in terms of supportive relationships, safety, youth participation, and skill building.

How long will the Program Improvement Pilot (PIP) project last before we are able to benefit from your findings?
We are currently working on an analysis of the eighty camps who participated in providing the original benchmarking data. We presented a preliminary analysis of this data at the ACA national conference in Orlando. Look for an upcoming article on these benchmarks in the September-October issue of Camping Magazine!

In addition, the twenty camps participating in the PIP project gathered together last fall and winter to analyze and reflect on their individual camps' data. We asked the camps questions: Why are campers experiencing camp the way they are? How are they involved in decision making? And, many other poignant questions. During this meeting, the camps created an action plan. They now have a set of strategies to implement at camp. Once they have implemented these camp-specific strategies, we will resurvey the twenty camps this summer. We will look at data in the fall of ‘05 identifying strategies and practices that really boost the benefits kids get at camp, and then we will share this information with the larger camp community and with other youth development organizations and leaders.

How were ACA camps chosen to participate?
Camps learned about the program improvement project primarily through regional and national presentations. Awareness was increased in the summer of ‘03 when we initiated a mini-pilot of four camps. It was important to obtain a representative sample. We collected names of volunteers and selected the participating camps based on region, day and resident camp, length of sessions offered, etc., all in the effort to maintain a representative sample of camps.

Why does this PIP project matter — to our members and to camps?
A significant reason is that camp is such a powerful memory and experience for those who attend; it has the potential to enrich lives to a great extent. The more we can improve upon this experience the better job we are doing.

ACA and the camp community are groundbreakers and a model for the rest of the youth development community, offering plausible evidence as to how a system that cares for young people can do the best job. There is a lot to learn from the camp community, and we can offer these important lessons to other organizations beyond camp, including out-of-school organizations, neighborhoods, local youth clubs, schools, and any group that has the best interests of youth in mind.

It matters because it matters to the kids. Everything we do for them must be done in the best possible way. We have that responsibility. This project will help us and other organizations to do the best possible job.

How will this type of project and future projects influence what we do at our camps?
The influence of this project can best be explained with an example: We know that the structure of camp offers kids an opportunity to practice decision making — this is an essential skill. In this current project, many camps are looking for successful strategies to build youth decision making into camp. The survey results will help us learn, for example, how to merge developmental needs into the camp experience. This will be true for decision making, relationship building, skill building, etc. This study will help camps learn how to improve these developmental aspects in an even better way. It is true that we know a lot about these aspects in other settings, but camp is the unique setting. And, we have much to learn.

How can we apply what you and ACA are doing to the messages we are sharing with parents?
Even now, some of the participating camps are trying various strategies to share with parents. One camp director told me what an enormous help the outcomes research has been for his camp's fund-raising efforts. He said, ‘We now have a quality-tested way to share the benefits of camp.'

The most important benefactor of this research is children. If we learn the kind of strategies necessary to build even richer developmental experiences for campers, they will be the first to benefit.

In the next month or so, we will be gathering a study group to strategize the best ways and best advantages to sharing the research results inside and outside the camp community.

Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.