Research: Intentional Youth Development


by Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D.; Paul E. Marsh, M.S.; M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.; Margery M. Scanlin, Ed.D.; Leslie S. Whitaker; Christopher Thurber, Ph.D.; and Mark Burkhardt

Camp directors often design the summer camp experience with intended camper outcomes in mind. Campers often experience positive changes as a result of attending summer camp. The research highlighted below provides an initial attempt at exploring how the intentions of camp directors influence the positive youth development outcomes experienced by campers.

Summer camps for young people have been offering developmental opportunities to children and adolescents for over one hundred years. Identifying the elements of camp experiences that result in positive youth development is necessary to assure that camps continue to provide "a world of good."

A national study was undertaken by researchers associated with the American Camp Association (ACA) to measure changes in young people as a result of summer camp experiences offered for the duration of at least one week. Positive changes in youth development constructs were found (see the full report, Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience at The purpose of this aspect of the research was to explore a logic model applied by the researchers that asserts that the goals set by camp directors and staff lead directly to positive outcomes for youth.

Data for this study were collected in 2002 and 2003 from a national sample of over five thousand families representing over ninety camps across the United States. The participating camps were selected from a multistage, stratified random sample of ACA-accredited camps representing both day and resident camps in different sponsorships (i.e., agency, religious, independent nonprofit, and independent for-profit).

The study design included pre, post, and follow-up questionnaires given to campers and parents, a pre-and post-observation checklist completed by staff during the session that the camper attended, and questionnaires to camp directors regarding the characteristics, outcome goals, and operations of their camps. The data used in this analysis of intentional youth development included camper pre-and-post tests and camp director surveys.

Matched t-tests were used to compare the pre-and-post data from the campers. Positive change occurred in the four domains of personal identity, social skills, personal values, and physical/cognitive (thinking) skills. Statistically significant positive change was found in six of the ten constructs measured (i.e., adventure/exploration skills, making friends, positive identity, independence, leadership, and spirituality).

Intended Outcome Goals and Youth Development

Of primary interest was an examination of the relationship between intentionally set program goals and positive change in the domains associated with those goals. Camp directors rank ordered a list of nine typical camp program outcome goals. These variables were recoded such that campers from a camp that gave either the first or the second choice as the goal area were compared to campers from camps that did not choose that goal as first or second. About 77 percent of the campers were in camps where the camp director indicated personal identity was either the first or second ranked outcome goal of their program. Almost 38 percent of the campers came from camps that ranked social skills as the primary or secondary goal. Personal values were ranked one or two by camps for 31 percent of the campers. Physical/cognitive skills were ranked first or second in camps representing 7 percent of the campers. The construct of spiritual growth as one dimension of personal values was also examined as a separate goal for religious-affiliated camps. Almost one fourth of the camps participating in the study indicated that increased spiritual growth was the highest ranked program outcome goal.

Regression analyses were calculated to ascertain if overall youth development change and change in the four domains could be predicted by the intended program outcome goals articulated by the camp director. No relationships were found between the intended goals and camper results for overall change, social skills, and personal values. The relationship between camper personal identity change was significant relative to camps that ranked personal values as the first or second outcome goal, but the percent of variance (i.e., explanatory power) was low. Positive change in physical/thinking skill was significant with camps that had either personal identity or physical/cognitive skills as their first or second ranked outcome goal, but this variance was also low.

Only two direct relationships existed between intentional program goals and camper change. In camps that had physical/cognitive as an intended program outcome, campers reported statistically significant positive change in physical/thinking skills from the beginning to the end of camp. For camps that indicated spiritual growth was an intended outcome within the area of personal values, campers reported statistically significant positive change in the construct of spiritual development.

Intended Outcome Goals and Program Components

Although the regression analyses were not as compelling as hypothesized, we were interested in what program components camp directors used to address their goals. For each of the first ranked outcome goals, camp directors chose from a list of components undertaken to reach that goal.

For all intended program outcome goals except for spirituality, the quality of the staff/camper interaction was the most important program component. For the camps focused on physical/thinking skills, the types of components offered included teaching specific activities, staff-to-camper ratios, camper decision-making, and progression of activities. Positive identity was promoted through the roles of campers in decision making, types of activities offered, program structure, and the staff training that was directed toward addressing the outcome goal. In addition to quality of staff/camper interactions, social skills were emphasized through staff training, camper groups, and camper decision-making. Personal values were focused through staff-to-camper ratios, staff training, and the follow-up in the off-season. Overall, the areas of staff/camper interactions, staff training, camper decision-making, and staff-to-camper ratios were the most important program components used to address camps' intended outcome goals.


This study showed that positive youth development from pre-to-post camp occurred in many campers in all measured domains. The regression analyses reported did not support strongly the notion of intentionality as measured by the directors' self-reports of intended program outcome goals. Physical/thinking skills and spirituality were the only strongly supported youth development constructs related to intended program goals. In other words, camp directors' views of their primary goals did not always predict measured camper growth and development.

The lack of evidence about the relationship between intended goals and youth development may be due to the global nature of the goals presented to the directors. The unclear relationship also could be due to the high level of correlation within the program goals. The program components used to reach intended goals, however, were important to acknowledge. Therefore, from a descriptive standpoint these deliberate program components contributed to positive youth development even if not directly measured by camp directors' stated goals.

More research is needed to understand the relationship between youth development and camp programs, structures, and processes. The elements that contribute to positive youth development are complex. This analysis represents a start at understanding more about how intent results in change.

Research Highlights
A logic model (i.e., a focus on how program components like camp activities leads to program outcomes like independence) suggests that intentional or deliberate program goals should lead to specified camper youth development outcomes.
Research conducted by ACA showed positive change in youth development characteristics as a result of camp experiences.
Few direct statistically significant results linked camp directors' intentional program outcome goals to youth development changes.
The components of camp programs, structures, and processes directed at reaching program goals were identified and included staff/camper interactions, staff training, camper decision-making, and staff-to-camper ratios.
This study provided an initial exploration but much more research is needed.

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., North Carolina State University; Paul E. Marsh, M.S., Indiana University; M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Margery M. Scanlin, Ed.D., American Camp Association; Leslie S. Whitaker, Philliber Research Associates; Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., Exeter Academy; Mark Burkhardt, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Consulting Editors
Barry Garst, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and extension specialist in 4-H youth development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with over fifteen years of experience in the camp setting in programmatic and administrative capacities.

Jeff Jacobs, Ph.D., has thirteen years of experience as a camp director and currently serves as an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University. His research and teaching focuses on outdoor and camp leadership.

Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.