Are We Getting More Young People to Camp?

by M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.

All of us who work in camps believe in the value of the camp experience and wish that every child could spend at least part of his or her summer at camp. The American Camp Association (ACA) believes so strongly in the positive benefits of the camp experience that one of the Ends of the Association is to increase the number of children, youth, and adults of all social, cultural, and economic groups who can attend camp. This fall we again collected information to create a snapshot of how camps felt they did on enrollment for the summer of 2006.

Thanks to the camps who took time to complete the survey and to the encouragement given them by our local office executives, we had 624 camps complete the Web-based survey (23 percent response rate). The camps who answered the survey were representative of the ACA camp community in terms of type and affiliation and so provided an accurate view of enrollment (see sidebar on page 62). To have comparable information, we asked directors to indicate their total enrollment in camper weeks rather than total campers as a way to equalize different session lengths. For example, if one hundred campers attended for one week, that was equal to a hundred camper weeks. However, if one hundred campers attended camp for eight weeks, that was eight hundred camper weeks. The questions were almost identical to the 2005 enrollment survey; therefore, we can make comparisons across years. While the survey also asked questions about staff recruitment, this article discusses only the camper enrollment data.

Overview of Summer 2006 Enrollment

The overall view on enrollment from directors was that the 2006 summer season was a good summer for the majority of camps and slightly better than they reported in last year’s survey. Over 48 percent of the camps indicated that this summer was the highest or higher than most of the past five summers for enrollment, while another 23 percent of the directors thought enrollment was about the same. However, some directors (18 percent) provided a different view on enrollment when they indicated they had fewer campers this summer than most of the past five summers, and for some camps (12 percent), the 2006 summer was their worst enrollment for that five-year period. When compared to their potential capacity, almost half of the camps (49 percent) operated at 90-100 percent capacity. About a quarter of the camps operated at 80-89 percent capacity, and another quarter operated at less than 80 percent capacity. Over 70 percent of the camps were within 90-100 percent of their targeted enrollment for the 2006 summer. When compared to 2005 summer survey data, the trend indicated a slight improvement this year with 5 percent fewer camps experiencing decreased enrollments, and 10 percent more camps hitting 90-100 percent of their targeted enrollment.

One way to assess the impact of camp opportunities for children is to look at the number of summer camper weeks generated. Table 1 shows the distribution of camper weeks generated by the camps in the survey. Over 72 percent said 2006 camper weeks were equal to or higher than last year. When asked how much higher this year was for camper weeks, 54 percent said between 1-7 percent higher (see Map 1 on page 62). If they indicated they were lower on camper weeks compared to last year, 57 percent were lower by 1-7 percent (see Map 2 on page 62). When asked about enrollment in specialized programs (horseback riding, etc.), camps indicated that the interest was about the same as last year (60 percent) or higher (28 percent). This increased interest in specialized activities was 10 percent higher than reported in last year’s survey. It was interesting to note that 28 percent of the camps responded that they offered no specialized programs.

Enrollment based on gender is always of interest to camp professionals (see Table 2 ). When asked about enrollment of boys in their programs, 36 percent said they had increased while 20 percent had decreased. Over half the camps with increased numbers of boys said it was higher by 1-7 percent. However, almost 26 percent of the camps who were lower on boys were down by more than 10 percent compared to last year. A similar picture emerged for girls’ enrollment. Thirty-seven percent of the camps had higher enrollment of girls in 2006 while 23 percent were lower than the previous year. For both higher and lower enrollments of girls, approximately 30 percent said the difference was in the 1-3 percent range. Similar to the boys’ data, 26 percent of the camps with decreased girls’ enrollment were lower by more than 10 percent.

Some concerns have been expressed about the difficulty of getting the youngest children to camp as well as keeping them into their teens. Table 3 shows enrollment by three age groups: less than or equal to nine years old, ten to twelve years old, and teens. The majority of camps for 2006 summer felt their age group enrollments were the same or higher than the previous year. When we looked to see how much higher and lower enrollments were, we found generally larger percentages of positive changes in enrollment and lower percentages for decreased enrollments. For example, for ten- to twelve-year-olds we found 39 percent of the camps were higher by 1-3 percent, and 30 percent were lower by 1-3 percent. For nine years and under, we found 29 percent were up by more than 10 percent while 20 percent were down by 10 percent or more. For teens, a mirror image of change was seen. For example, 25 percent of the camps said their teen enrollments were up by more than 10 percent while 25 percent said teen enrollments were down by more than 10 percent.

We also collected data on how camps financially supported campers through scholarships, donations, etc. Similar to last year, most camps (87 percent) indicated their organization offered financial support of at least 50 percent of the camp costs to campers in need. The number of supported camper weeks was almost identical to last year with 66 percent of the camps stating they generated up to 199 camper weeks. Over half the camps said their financial support of campers had not changed from last year. In terms of actual dollars for camper support, 38 percent of the camps said they generated more than $25,000.

Lastly, enrollment of ethnic/minority campers and return rates of all campers were examined. Almost no change was seen in ethnic/minority diversity in camp with 75 percent of the directors indicating the same enrollment as last year. For returning campers, more than half the directors said they had return rates between 50-74 percent. Return rates seem very stable since 62 percent of the directors in the 2005 survey and 2006 survey said they had about the same number of returning campers. For camps with higher rates of returning campers, over 70 percent said they had increased by 1-7 percent. For camps who experienced fewer returning campers, over 20 percent of those camps saw decreases greater than 10 percent.

Does Enrollment Differ Based On Camp Characteristics?

People often question whether enrollment issues are different for day camps than resident camps, so we took a closer look at the information from that perspective. That comparison showed a few areas with meaningful differences. The five major differences in 2006 were related to: gender enrollment, specialized program interest, financial support for campers, perceived enrollment trends for the past five years, and capacity.

  • Resident camps seemed to experience lower enrollments of both boys and girls. For example, 23 percent of the resident camp directors indicated lower enrollment of boys while only 9 percent of day camps saw this reduction. Similarly, 26 percent of the resident camps were lower for girls as compared to only 14 percent of the day camps.
  • Day camps indicated more interest in their specialized programs (45 percent) compared to resident camps (26 percent).
  • Resident camps generated more financial support for campers with 42 percent of resident camp directors indicating they contributed greater than $25,000, while only 25 percent of the day camps generated more than $25,000.
  • When asked to compare the 2006 summer to the previous five years, 55 percent of the day camps indicated that this summer was the highest or higher in enrollment than most of the last five years. Resident camps were slightly more negative with 46 percent stating 2006 was the best or among the best enrollments over the past five years.
  • Only 45 percent of the resident camps said they reached greater than or equal to 90 percent capacity while 61 percent of the day camps indicated that level. Over 77 percent of the day camps said they hit their targeted 2006 enrollments of greater than 90 percent as compared to 66 percent of resident camps with this same goal.

Last year’s survey indicated quite a few regional differences around session length, camper return rates, financial support of campers, and overall enrollments as well as differences around gender enrollments. This year, the regional comparisons were much more similar. The only areas of major difference were in session length, the magnitude of camper return rates, and the five- year trends.

  • The greatest gains in enrollment came from camps in Mid-America and the West. For example, 33 percent and 31 percent of the camps in the West and Mid-America, respectively, said their increase in enrollments was greater than 10 percent over 2005.
  • The most popular session length in camps in Mid-America, the West, and the South was one week, while New England indicated popular sessions of two weeks, and Mid-Atlantic camps found one week and seven to eight weeks to both be popular.
  • For all camps that experienced growth in camper return rates, the greatest increases (greater than 10 percent) were seen in the Mid-America and the West regions.
  • While all regions seemed to think enrollments were up in 2006, the South seemed to be most positive with almost 60 percent of these camps saying enrollment was the highest or among the highest for the past five summers.

The last analysis looked at the information from the perspective of camp affiliation (agency/municipal, religious, independent for profit, and independent nonprofit). This comparison showed a number of interesting differences:

  • Religiously-affiliated camps experienced the most decreases in enrollment with 40 percent lower than the previous year. Close to half of the agency/municipal, independent for profit, and independent nonprofit camps indicated increased enrollment in 2006.
  • The most popular session lengths for independent for-profit camps were generally seven- to eight-week sessions. Other affiliations favored the one-week sessions.
  • Interest in specialized programs increased by 30 percent in all affiliations except private for-profit camps. For the vast majority of private for-profit camps (78 percent), interest in specialized programs stayed the same.
  • Independent for-profit and religiously-affiliated camps generally generated the fewest number of financially supported camper weeks (less than fifty camper weeks a summer). Religiously-affiliated camps also generated slightly less money for camper support.
  • Only 33 percent of the religiously-affiliated directors indicated the 2006 summer was the highest or among the highest summer enrollments for the past five years compared to agency/municipal (48 percent); independent for profit (61 percent); and independent nonprofit (52 percent).
  • Seventy-one percent of independent for-profit camps indicated they were at 90-100 percent capacity while only 26 percent of the religiously-affiliated camps were at this level. Agency and independent nonprofit camps were 46 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
  • When asked how close they were to their targeted enrollment for the 2006 summer, independent for-profit camps had the best performance at the upper end of the 90-99 percent. Religiously-affiliated had the lowest with 21 percent falling below 80 percent of their targeted capacity.

Lessons Learned From the Enrollment Survey

Just as we saw in last year’s survey, the issue of camp enrollment is more complex than may initially appear. While the summer of 2006 was one of high enrollment that met many camps’ targeted enrollment projections and was close to capacity, for other segments of the camp community the summer was one of the lowest enrollment summers of the past five years. Several messages emerge from this study:

  • Camps in general seemed to experience a boost in enrollments in 2006 with fewer camps indicating decreased enrollments in general, by age, and by gender. Almost half the camps put the 2006 summer as one of their best for the past five years.
  • Regional differences around enrollment virtually disappeared in 2006. The worries about the effects of hurricanes and wildfires on camps in the South and West never materialized for the camps who responded to this survey. In fact, many camps in the West, Mid-America, and the South had one of their best summers.
  • The concern over major enrollment differences between day and resident camps were not evident in these data.
  • Enrollment decreases are a concern for religiously-affiliated camps. When camps who indicated they were experiencing decreases in enrollment (particularly by age and gender) were examined more closely, religiously-affiliated camps were often the ones with the largest decreases.
  • Enrollments of ethnic/minority campers did not experience any real growth in any segment of the camp community.
  • While most camps are generating dollars to help children enroll in camp who otherwise may not attend, these sponsorships seem to have plateaued at fairly minimal levels.

Thanks to the ACA camps who took the time to complete the study, we have valuable data from which to talk about trends and issues related to enrollment. We plan to continue to collect enrollment data and hope that even more directors will contribute their perspectives every March and October. Our hope is to provide camp decision-makers with accurate information that will help in the development of marketing and recruitment strategies and retention plans based on the most informed research data from the camp community. As far as whether ACA is making headway on its desire to increase the number of children getting a camp experience, these data suggest we are making some small gains but have much room to improve.

Who Participated in the Survey?
A total of 624 camps participated in this study (23 percent response rate).
• 29% agency and governmental camps
• 29% independent nonprofit
• 20% independent for-profit
• 22% religiously-affiliated
Camper clientele:
• 72% co-ed
• 16% girls only
• 5% boys only
• 8% combinations
Type of camp:
• 76% resident camps
• 24% day camps
Geographic areas:
• 29% from the Mid-Atlantic (Chesapeake, Keystone, New Jersey, New York, Upstate New York, Virginia)
• 26% from Mid-America (Great Rivers, Illinois, Indiana, Northland, Ohio, St. Louis, Wisconsin, Michigan)
• 12% New England
• 17% South (Texoma, Southeastern, Heart of the South)
• 16% West (Evergreen, Northern and Southern California, Oregon Trail, Rocky Mountain, and Southwest)


Want to know more specific information tailored to your camp?

  • Go to
  • Under research efforts, click on 2006 Camp Enrollment Survey.
  • Under 2006 September Survey, click on view current results.
  • View the results summary or click on the gray box to add filter(s) to tailor the data (e.g., section, sponsorship, type, etc.).
  • Questions? Contact Deb Bialeschki at

Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is senior researcher for the American Camp Association.

Originally published in the 2007 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.