Family Camps — Strengthening Family Relationships at Camp and at Home

by Sarah Taylor, John Felt Covey, and Christine Davis Covey

Families are one of the fundamental units of society and are the building blocks of social structures and organizations in every culture. Today, the structure of the family seems to be under attack with "high divorce rates and the alleged collapse of traditional marriage [and family life]" (VanDenBerghe 2000, pp. 16-17). A widespread belief is that American marriages and families are weak and troubled (Nock 1998). With the apparent weakening of today's families, many are calling for society to take steps to help protect and strengthen the family unit.

Family Systems Theory

A theoretical framework that has been used to describe and understand how families function and interact is the Family Systems Theory (Steinglass 1987; Whitchurch & Constantine 1993). According to the Family Systems Theory, the family is a complex system of individuals interacting with one another. Zabriskie & McCormick (2001) stated that families are "goal-directed, self-correcting, dynamic, interconnected systems that both affect and are affected by their environment and by qualities within the family itself."

The circumplex model of marital and family systems is a graphic representation of the dynamic relationships within family systems and emphasizes how family members and their behaviors are interconnected. The three dimensions addressed by the model are family cohesion (i.e., togetherness); family adaptability (i.e., the ability to cope with change); and family communication (Olson & DeFrain 2000). Although communication is not pictured graphically in the model, as a facilitating dimension it helps the families move between the extremes of the other two dimensions. According to Olson and DeFrain, "If a couple or family has good communication skills, they are more likely to be close (cohesion dimension) and be able to work out problems (adaptability dimension) when they arise (p. 66)."

Both cohesion and adaptability contribute to a family's overall functioning, and they are the two primary qualities of high functioning families listed by Olson and DeFrain (2000). Other factors may also influence family functioning, and the levels of cohesion and adaptability experienced within the family system. One dimension of family life that has been found to influence family functioning is family leisure.

Family Leisure

Shaw and Dawson (2001) stated that family leisure is purposive in nature, and parents consciously and deliberately plan and facilitate family leisure activities to improve family relationships. They emphasized the importance many parents place on family leisure by stating that it is often with a sense of urgency that parents try to spend time together with children participating in family activities. Over the last seventy years, researchers have consistently reported positive relationships between family leisure and positive family outcomes when examining recreation and leisure patterns among families (Hawks 1991; Holman & Epperson 1984; Orthner & Mancini 1991).

Recent research has demonstrated that family leisure is associated with several family strengths such as increased satisfaction with family life (Zabriskie & McCormick 2003), increased collective efficacy (Wells, Widmer, & McCoy 2004), and improved family communication (Huff, Widmer, McCoy, & Hill 2003). These studies examined the influence of family leisure from both the parent and youth perspectives. By including the perspectives and experiences of a variety of family members, a fuller picture of the family dynamics occurring within the system was obtained. This richer perspective is important when considering how family leisure influences family functioning, particularly when using a family systems framework to understand family functioning.

Hawks stated that sixty years of family leisure research has found that "family strength or cohesiveness is related to the family's use of leisure time" (1991, p. 424), and Orthner and Mancini (1991) claimed that "leisure experiences foster system adaptation to new inputs" (p. 297). Referring to the circumplex model, cohesion and adaptability are the two primary components of family functioning. Recent studies (e.g., Freeman & Zabriskie 2003; Hill, Freeman, & Huff 2001; Smith, Taylor, Hill, & Zabriskie 2004; Zabriskie & McCormick 2001) have reported a significant relationship between family leisure involvement and family cohesion, adaptability, and overall family functioning from a system's perspective. Although the positive relationship between family leisure and aspects of family functioning is fairly well established, many scholars (Hawks 1991; Holman & Epperson 1984; Orthner & Mancini 1990) have noted that the nature of the relationship is still poorly understood because of the limited use of sound theoretical frameworks in past studies. In response, the core and balance model of family leisure functioning (Zabriskie 2000, 2001; Zabriskie & McCormick 2001) was developed, which offers a family leisure framework and has helped provide insight into the nature of the family leisure relationship.

Core and Balance Model of Family Leisure Functioning

The core and balance model of family leisure functioning holds that, "Varying patterns of family leisure involvement contribute to family functioning in different ways" (Freeman & Zabriskie 2003, p. 76). Iso-Ahola (1984) explained that all individuals have an innate need for both stability and change, and often fill that need through leisure. Similarly, Kelly (1996, 1999) described two different leisure patterns that individuals engage in across the lifespan that meet needs for both constancy and novelty. Freeman and Zabriskie explained that the "interplay between stability and change plays an even greater role when examining the needs of a family system (p. 76)." The core and balance model of family leisure functioning addresses these two patterns of leisure within a family context and suggests that they contribute to different aspects of family functioning.

The model indicates two types of family leisure patterns, core and balance, that families use to meet needs for both stability and change (Zabriskie & McCormick 2001). Core family leisure patterns are "depicted by activities that are common, everyday, low-cost, relatively accessible, often home-based, and are participated in frequently (Freeman & Zabriskie, 2003 pp. 76-77)." Core activities might include family dinners, going on walks together, playing a board game around the kitchen table, playing catch in the yard, or watching a movie together. These activities usually require little planning or resources and are often spontaneous in nature. Core family activities provide a safe and comfortable environment in which feelings of closeness and bonding can increase.

Balance family leisure patterns are novel, out of the ordinary, and occur less frequently (Zabriskie 2001). They are usually not home-based and often require a greater investment of time, effort, and resources. Balance activities might include family vacations, special events, and outdoor leisure activities such as sailing, camping, and fishing. Balance activities generally require more planning and are consequently less spontaneous and more formalized than core activities. Since balance activities tend to be novel and usually include an element of unpredictability, family members are often challenged and required to be flexible and adapt to new experiences.

The core and balance model suggests that the family's need for stability is addressed through involvement in core family leisure, which provides regular and predictable family experiences that increase personal relationships and family closeness or cohesion. On the other hand, the family's need for change is addressed through involvement in balanced family leisure, which provides novel, challenging, and often unpredictable experiences that provide a leisure context in which families develop adaptive skills. Cohesion and adaptability are the key components of family functioning, and the balance of cohesion and adaptability is the foundation for Olson and DeFrain's (2000) circumplex model. The core and balance model also suggests that families who participate in relatively equal amounts of both core and balance family leisure are likely to function better than families who participate in very high or very low amounts of one category or the other (Freeman & Zabriskie 2003).

Studies with diverse family samples have consistently supported the tenets of the model. Whether examining traditional families (Zabriskie 2000); adoptive families (Zabriskie & Freeman 2004); single-parent families (Smith, Taylor, Hill, & Zabriskie 2004); or Hispanic families (Christenson 2004), researchers have reported positive relationships between family leisure involvement and family functioning and have provided further insight into the nature of that relationship. Findings have also been consistent when examining different perspectives within the family including parents, young adults, and young adolescents (Zabriskie & McCormick 2001). Overall, the core and balance model seems to offer a theoretical framework for examining contributions of family leisure involvement to aspects of family functioning. These studies have shown that families who participate in both core and balance leisure activities together have improved family functioning. One type of balance activity that some families participate in is family camps.

Family Camps

One avenue that many families have chosen to improve their family functioning and strengthen their family relationships is family camps. Family camps are a vehicle through which to create a short-term, intensive situation in a supportive environment for families to change and practice what they learn. Family camps have been found to be useful in therapeutic settings. Lewicki, Goyette, and Marr (1996) stated that for lasting change to occur, it was necessary to impact the entire system. Lewicki (1993) claimed that it was important to incorporate the entire family in the treatment process.

In addition to treatment settings, family camps have been found to be beneficial to families in general. Kinney, Haapala, and Booth (1991) observed that family camps can be a short-term experience with a family preservation approach. Families need not attend family camps only when in therapy, but can do so simply as a way to strengthen their relationships and create more meaningful bonds with one another. Family camps can be highly motivating and empowering experiences for families (Lewicki, Goyette, & Marr 1996) and can act as a tremendous catalyst toward change within a family system.

The Study

Purpose
The purpose of this study was to examine how family camps are strengthening families. The researchers explored what principles family camps are based on and how those camps are teaching those principles to families. The sample for this study was composed of eight directors of family camps and was gathered by purposive sampling. Criteria for the participants included (a) directors of camps that focus on families; (b) camps that had been in operation for at least five years; and (c) camps located in the United States. The data was collected through telephone interviews in which the researchers asked the participants thirteen questions. The data was coded to find the emerging themes.

Results
All of the directors of the family camps stated that the purpose of their camps was to strengthen families. A secondary purpose of many camps was to provide families an opportunity to relax. Each director expressed the importance of respecting the choice of family members to participate. Many camps shared common activities: eating meals together, waterfront activities, campfires, and educational activities.

The philosophies that the camps were based on included promoting values, building community, environmental stewardship, and choice. The principles that the camps were based on included honesty, respect, responsibility, caring, sense of community, healthy living through camping, personal growth and development, and appreciation of wildlife and family. Six of the eight directors expressed the implied importance of these principles and how their camp taught these principles by example. Only one of the eight camps taught the principles their camp was based on through specific activities.

Discussion
It was clear through talking with the family camp directors that these family camps exist to strengthen families. All of the family camp providers have an excellent opportunity for teaching families. They each claimed that their purpose was to strengthen families, but are they taking full advantage of the chance they have to teach and strengthen these families?

Only one of the camps intentionally taught families about the principles their camp was based on. This camp had a focus on environmental stewardship and used meal time as a powerful way to teach this principle to families. The families were gathered together for the first meal. Family members served themselves buffet style. At the end of the meal, the family camp providers cleared the tables for the families. Then, they gathered the families together around a table. The camp counselors had scraped the food off of the plates, weighed it, and put it onto the table. There was a large pile of food that had been left uneaten. The intentional teaching of this activity took place as the family camp director gave the families statistics about people who don't have food to eat and measurements about how little food people in different parts of the world have to eat. This intentional teaching was a powerful way for families to be aware of the environment around them and their stewardship for their resources.

If more family camps were to intentionally teach principles to families, or base their programming on fundamental family leisure principles, they may be much more effective in actually strengthening family relationships and improving family functioning. None of the directors of the camps in the study based the programming for their activities on theoretical principles of family leisure. Family camps that were to deliberately base their programming on family leisure theories (i.e., the core and balance model of family leisure functioning) may have a more powerful influence on strengthening families as they offer these recreational opportunities for families. For example, if a family camp was to plan activities for families that include both core (common, everyday activities) and balance (more novel, out-of-the-ordinary activities) for families at camp, it would be beneficial for the camp to intentionally and specifically teach families the importance of doing both types of activities.

None of the camps included in the study helped families apply what they had learned at camp once they returned home. For lasting change to occur in families, they must continue practicing and applying what they learned at the camp. Family camps should consider how they can help families apply what they have learned at camp even after they are home. With the core and balance example, if the family camp was to also teach families the importance of doing these activities at home (i.e., eating dinner together, playing games together, as well as going on trips or going camping together), as well as how to do these activities at home, the change that families experience at camp may be more lasting and powerful once they return home.

Practical Applications
Family camp directors can:

  • understand the opportunity they have to teach and strengthen families;
  • define the principles their camp is based on;
  • specifically plan activities based on those principles to intentionally teach them to families;
  • apply family leisure principles when planning activities for families to participate in at camp; and
  • help families apply principles they learned at camp after returning home.

Recommendations for Future Research
Since family camps can be a powerful influence on families, more research is necessary to understand what family camps are doing for families and how they can be more effective in strengthening family relationships. The researchers recommend interviewing families that attend family camps to examine if/how they feel the camp is strengthening their family. It would also be useful to study different types of families attending family camps and do needs assessments for different types of families. Are family camps meeting the needs of various types of families (i.e., single- parent families, families with special needs children, adoptive families)?

It is also important to find ways to make family camps more accessible to families. Many families would greatly benefit from attending a family camp, but are unable to do so because of financial restraints. As family camps are made accessible to more families in a variety of situations, parents and children alike will benefit from family camp participation and will have an opportunity to strengthen their family relationships.

Sarah Taylor is an instructor in the Department of Recreation Management and Youth Leadership at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. She received her master's degree from BYU in youth and family recreation and is a certified family life educator.

John Felt Covey is currently a senior at Brigham Young University, majoring in recreation management with an emphasis in Commercial Recreation.

Christine Davis Covey is in her last semester at Brigham Young University (BYU) focusing on community recreation in the recreation management program. She has worked extensively as a counselor and program coordinator for BYU Sports and Dance Camps.

References
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Originally published in the 2006 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Camp Manito-wish, Wisconsin

 

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