The Camp Experience: Being ALL That We Can Be

by M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., and Marge Scanlin, Ed.D.

As you think of this past summer and its challenges, your feelings likely range from pride in your accomplishments to relief that another camp season has ended! Most of you shared goals with your staff during staff training for how campers' lives would benefit from camp. The hope was that the staff could make these goals a reality by providing dynamic programs, connecting with campers through informal interactions, and by following best practices known to work at camp. Now that summer is over, reflect with us. What were the benefits to campers? How well did we provide supportive relationships and developmental experiences that enabled campers to grow? Do we really know if we met our goals?

Last summer eighty American Camp Association (ACA)-accredited camps teamed with Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI) to look at how campers assess their camp experiences on outcomes that contribute to positive youth development. We wanted to learn if campers find the kinds of opportunities and supportive relationships needed to achieve optimal developmental environments. This article provides the background for the project, a brief summary of the initial results, and some information on how you can become involved in a similar process.

Why a Youth Development Framework?

During the last ten years, society has become interested in results. Everyone wants to know how to produce positive change. We are increasingly accountable for outcomes (changes in behavior or benefits) such as competence, moral development, problem-solving, sense of identity, and positive values. Often unclear for the camp director is how to connect camp programs with these kinds of positive outcomes. We need a map that will help us move youth toward these outcomes and a way to know where to exert the most energy to help campers in our unique camp environments.

The Community Action Framework for Youth Development (Gambone, Klem, & Connell 2002) provides this needed roadmap (see Figure 1). Camps can make a difference within Supports and Opportunities (Box C) by providing campers with multiple supportive relationships with adults and peers, offering challenging activities, providing meaningful opportunities for involvement, and keeping campers feeling safe. These developmental building blocks help young people learn to be productive, connect with others, and navigate through life with responsible actions (Box B). Ultimately, these developmental outcomes have been proven to lead to long-term positive outcomes in adulthood.

How Camps Participated

Eighty camps who reflected the general characteristics of ACA camps in sponsorship, session length, campers' gender, and type of camp agreed to have campers ten years old and up complete a survey at the end of a camp session in 2004. The survey was focused on supportive relationships, safety, youth involvement, and skill building.

The data were analyzed for all eighty camps combined, but each camp also received their specific scores on each of the four core areas. The results were not averages of all the children's scores as typically seen in research reports. Rather, the results showed percentages of campers who reported an "optimal" experience, an "insufficient" experience, or an experience that was neither optimal nor insufficient for that dimension (see This approach allows a camp to recognize what's good about their current practices but also see where to improve on dimensions. The key to this process is to learn how and where to modify program, staff training, and camper participation in ways that move campers from the insufficient and the in-between areas into the optimal level.

And the Survey Said . . .

The eighty camps administered the survey to a total of 7,672 campers to get campers' perceptions on these four dimensions. The results from the data confirmed some of our beliefs while surprising us on others. Most camp professionals believe the camp community provides an excellent environment in which to build positive relationships between adults and youth as well as among the campers themselves. The data supported that notion. When the campers' perceptions about guidance, emotional and practical support, and knowledge of youth were calculated, 69 percent of the campers were in the optimal category while only 9 percent were in the insufficient group. This finding suggests that camps are doing a good job in meeting supportive relationship needs of their campers, but we still have room to improve.

The second dimension asked how safe campers felt at camp. Surprisingly, just 30 percent of campers were in the optimal category; however, only 1 percent was in the insufficient area. Most of us place great importance on the safety of our camp experiences, so these results seem counter-intuitive. This finding showed that campers see safety differently than directors/staff. The positive point is that almost none of our campers feel unsafe at camp. However, we must be tuned to camper perceptions about physical and emotional safety if we want them to gain from camp.

Youth involvement was the third dimension analyzed. This area focused on campers' perceptions around decision-making, leadership, and belonging. The surprising results showed only 5 percent of all campers in the optimal category and 39 percent in the insufficient group. Most camp professionals place high importance on youth leadership. We try to offer opportunities for decision-making and developing a sense of belonging. However, the campers did not support these adult perceptions.

The last dimension focused on skill- building and opportunities for challenging and interesting activities. The findings indicated that 41 percent of the campers were in the optimal category for this outcome; however, 26 percent were in the insufficient area. While camps offer opportunities in skill-building, we still have many children who do not feel they get better at things that matter to them.

So What? Now What?

The data from this initial study provides an important baseline for our professional growth and development. While some findings confirmed our beliefs that "camp gives kids a world of good," it also raised challenges to our practices and structures in camps. This first stage of the project has provided a benchmark from which to assess further, find additional information to help us understand why campers have these perceptions, and develop strategies that move children into optimal areas for their own developmental growth.

Twenty of the camps in the original Benchmark study accepted the challenge of the second stage of the process (Program Improvement Process-PIP). Starting in the fall of 2004, directors contacted their campers and counselors to hear their reasons why they thought the camp's results turned out as they did. Based on this feedback and after completing an organizational assessment, these camps individually designed and prioritized strategies implemented during the 2005 summer that they believe will move campers from the insufficient or in-between areas into the optimal category for their camp. We hope that from those strategies, we can identify "best practices" that can be considered for the four outcome areas.

Efforts such as this Benchmark study are critical for the development of the profession. We need to accurately assess and understand the perceptions and happenings that occur during the camp experience. These data are generated through the willingness of camps to take risks, be open to critique, expend energy, and invest time and money in the hope of improving the camp experience for children. While we know that many good things happen to children as a result of going to camp, we also need to be willing to take a hard, critical look at what we offer to see where we can improve. While temporarily uncomfortable with what we might find, the reward of improvements that move more children toward those ultimate outcomes in adulthood will certainly be worth the effort.

Connell, J.P., Gambone, M.A., & Smith, T.J. (2000). Youth development in communities: Challenges to our field and our approach. In Youth development: Issues, challenges, and directions (pp. 281-300). Philadelphia, PA: Private/Public Ventures.
Gambone, M.A., Klem, A.M., & Connell, J.P. (2002). Finding out what matters for youth: Testing key links in a community action framework for youth development. Philadelphia, PA: Youth Development Strategies, Inc. and Institute for Research and Reform in Education.
Leffert, N., Benson, P., & Roehlkepartain, J. (1997). Starting out right: Developmental assets for children. Minneapolis: Search Institute.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1997). Understanding youth development: Promoting positive pathways of growth. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth.

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is a senior researcher with the American Camp Association and an emeritus professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact the author at

Marge Scanlin, Ed.D., is the American Camp Association's executive officer of research. Contact the author at

Originally published in the 2005 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.