Campers Have a World of Good — Insights from the ACA Sites, Facilities, and Programs Report: 2011

Mark F. Roark, Ph.D., and Marissa Mikami

Each year, camp staff members spend days — if not weeks — preparing facilities, activity areas, and programs so their campers can enjoy fun, educational, and life-enhancing experiences. Whether operating on a public grassy field or nestled in the woods, one key to successes is knowing about programs and facilities. Every three years, ACA conducts the Sites, Facilities, and Program Survey (SFPS) as a part of the larger, annually conducted business operations surveys. This article focuses on the SFPS completed during the fall of 2010. Fifty percent of ACA-accredited camps were randomly selected to participate in the survey and 539 (40 percent) of the camps responded. Questions focused on general camp operations, facilities, staffing, program activities, and several current issues. Varied characteristics of camps such as budget, size, primary type of camp operation, as well as type of sponsorship and geographic regions, were also gathered. While the survey data are extensive, this article shares some of the key findings of interest to the camp industry. While the general camp operations information as provided in this article offers a useful overview, the real value to these data to camp professionals is found in comparison to other similar camps. If something in particular piques your interest, take note of comparison data details at the end of the article.

Overview of Camp Operations

Understanding general camp operations assists us in identifying who we serve (current and potential clientele) and how we serve them. Camps reported that their primary function was resident camp (52 percent), day camp (31 percent), or rental groups (17 percent). Agencies operated the highest number of ACA day camps while independent nonprofit camps offered the highest number of resident camps. Of particular interest was the low percent of municipal government camps in ACA (1 percent resident and 6 percent day). Over 50 percent of resident camps offered programs in spring and fall, while just over one out of three resident camps also offered winter programming. About one out of five day camps offered spring, fall, or winter programs. Coeducation camps were the most popular with 74 percent of resident camps and 95 percent of day camps offering such programs. Camper days (each day a person spends on site) for 2010 ranged from less than 1,000 to more than 40,000, but on average there were approximately 12,000 camper days. Session lengths ranged from less than one week to longer than twelve weeks, with both resident and day camps operating, on average, eleven weeks during the summer.

Camps served a wide range of clientele who came from a variety of backgrounds. Several clientele characteristics worth noting included:

  • Gender-exclusive camps were less popular than coed experiences.
    • Resident: girl only was 23 percent and boy only was 14 percent
    • Day: girl only was 7 percent and boy only was 5 percent
  • Resident and day camps serve similar economic levels.
    • High income: 47 percent resident and 51 percent day
    • Middle income: 73 percent resident and 80 percent day• Low income: 43 percent resident and 39 percent day
    • Poverty: 25 percent resident and 18 percent day

Camps predominately served Caucasian campers, with day camps serving slightly more minorities. These results were very similar to the 2008 SFPS and parallel to the US 2010 Census data regarding population by race, except Hispanics and Latinos.

  • Caucasian: 75 percent resident and 72 percent day
  • African American: 11 percent for both
  • Hispanic/Latino: 7 percent for both (2010 Census is 16.3 percent)
  • Asian: 3 percent resident and 5 percent day
  • Bi-racial: 3 percent resident and 5 percent day

While most camps said they included campers with disabilities, only 5 percent of the total camper population in both resident and day camps had a physical, emotional, or cognitive disability.

At least 53 percent of resident camps offered a program designed for the participation of family members along with campers, with five percent of the family programs specifically for grandparents and their grandchildren. Fewer day camps (7 percent) offered family camp experiences.

Day/Resident Camp Comparisons

An indicator of a successful business operation is returning customers and staff. Camp return rates for participants and staff appeared very similar to the rates from the 2008 SFPS. Resident camper return rates were all above 50 percent for youth (68 percent), adults (55 percent), and rental groups (79 percent). Similar to resident camp, day camps were above 50 percent with youth (68 percent) and rental groups (62 percent). Regarding camp personnel, the old saying "money talks" is applicable for staff returning. Twenty percent more paid resident camp staff returned than volunteer staff. When day camp staff were paid, 51 percent were more likely to return than voluntary staff. Whether returning or not, full-time camp employment seems to be limited. On average, resident camps employed 5.6 full-time employees while day camps employed 4.5 full-time employees — a decrease from numbers in the 2008 SFPS, which showed day and resident camps employed 6 and 5 full-time employees, respectively.

Transportation is still a major component of the camp's operation for both resident (84 percent) and day (86 percent) camps. Day camps commonly use buses (80 percent), followed by vans (19 percent), cars (7 percent), and public transportation (5 percent). Resident camps also use buses (58 percent), vans (57 percent), cars (38 percent), and public transportation (8 percent).

Facilities

Dining and lodging facilities are an important aspect to many camps. As expected, 97 percent of the resident camps reported that they had some type of dining facility (and often multiple options). Sixty-one percent of these were heated and/or air-conditioned, 51 percent outdoor, and 48 percent without heat and/or air-conditioning indoors. Not surprisingly, day camps had fewer developed facilities with 32 percent using outdoor dining facilities, followed by heated/air-conditioned dining areas (28 percent), and indoor dining with no heat or air-conditioning (13 percent). Resident camp lodging on average was 256 beds, and camps who had rental groups as their primary audience reported having about the same number of beds. Figure 1 provides a glimpse into the most common kinds of program facilities that were popular with survey respondents. Again, differences in specialized facilities varied among resident and day camps.

The most common facilities or amenities resident camps planned to expand in the next five years were on-site lodging, dining facilities, high ropes courses, low ropes courses, and all-purpose spaces. Day camps planned to add new playgrounds and low ropes courses.

Programming and Social Issues

Camps offered over 100 different program activities. When analyzed by major program categories for resident and day camps respectively, Sports / Recreation / Outdoor Skills (96 percent and 99 percent) and Arts/Hobbies (95 percent and 98 percent) were the most common, followed by Environmental Activities (86 percent and 75 percent) and Academic/Science/Technology (50 percent and 52 percent). Although program offerings varied, Figure 2 shows the top five activities in the areas of sports, recreation, outdoor skills, and arts for resident and day camps.

With the importance of the "green" movement, information on environmental activities/studies was gathered. Eighty-six percent of resident camps and 75 percent of day camps offered at least one or more of twenty-two environmental activities. Three out of every four resident campers learned fire-building skills at camp, while day campers' most popular activity was recycling and composting.

When asked if camps participated in the Federal Summer Food Service Program, only 21 percent of resident camps and 14 percent of day camps said yes. Common reasons given for not participating by resident and day camps, respectively, were: they were unaware of the program (44 percent and 35 percent); they thought camp didn't qualify (28 percent and 31 percent); their clientele had no need (14 percent and 13 percent); and the requirements were too labor intensive or they were unable to handle the logistics (15 percent and 13 percent).

Today, camp is more than a place where youth play and inherently develop positive life skills. Camp is also a place that can intentionally create active and physically healthy lifestyle habits, which helps camps become a key player in addressing childhood obesity. This survey asked camps about healthy eating choices and physical activity levels at camp. Over 80 percent of all camps have campers engage in physical activity levels greater than an hour a day. In fact, at least one out of three campers that attended camp had three to five hours of intense physical activity a day, compared to other studies where 62 percent of nine- to thirteen-year-old children did not participate in any physical activity in non-school hours, and 23 percent did not engage in any daily physical activity (Duke, Huhman, & Heitzler, 2003).

Another way to address childhood obesity is to provide healthy food options where campers learn healthier habits at camp to use at home. Day and resident camps provided healthy eating choices with more fruits or nuts, non-meat options, salad bars, and whole grains. Considering that 87 percent of resident camps and 38 percent of day camps have camp stores, this is an ideal location to integrate healthy choices and decrease unhealthy snack options.

New issues intentionally targeted by camps showed a range of societal concerns. Interest in these issues varied somewhat by type of camp, as illustrated in Table 1. However, connecting children with nature and increasing physical activity were the top concerns for both day and resident camps. Questions about relationships to schools and educational efforts showed that 22 percent of the resident camps were direct partners during the school year, 4 percent were direct partners during summer, and 18 percent were indirect partners. Day camps were more likely to be direct partners with schools during the school year (16 percent), during the summer (16 percent), and as indirect partners (27 percent).

Another issue addressed in the survey focused on the perceptions of camp administrators on the increase of prescribed drugs and over-the-counter medicines arriving with campers at camp. Not surprisingly, the issue was more pronounced in resident camps, where on average, 29 percent of the youth campers took over-the-counter drugs and 33 percent were administered prescription drugs by the camp's medical team. Day camps, on average, had just 11 percent of their campers on prescribed drugs and 9 percent taking over-the-counter medications.

Since many camps are experiencing greater accountability that requires evidence, a question was asked about the types of data systematically collected by the camp. Quite a varied picture emerged for resident and day camps (see Table 2). Most commonly, camps collected data on satisfaction, but they collected little in the way of actual impact on the growth and development of their campers.

Considering the need to collect data to "prove" our camp programs do the things we say they do, systematic data on campers' growth and development is often needed to demonstrate the impact and value of the camp experience. Since the availability of ACA Youth Outcomes measures in 2008, interest in collecting camper developmental outcomes surveys has increased, but on average, only 20 percent of resident camps and 10 percent of day camps collect such camper evidence. As can be seen in Table 3 (see page 69), results vary greatly by sponsorship and regions.

Conclusion

The findings from the 2011 SFPS in this article highlighted particular resident and day camp facts. These industry trends assist us in identifying whom we serve, whom else we could be serving, and how we could better serve them. Five key messages arose from the results shared in this article.

  1. Camps need to continue to reach out to diverse groups. For example, we need to find ways to involve more Hispanic and Latino participants. Compared to the 2010 Census results, 16.3 percent of the United States population is Hispanic/Latino, and camps served on average 7 percent in both resident and day. We also need to continue to find ways to serve campers with disabilities or special needs who might otherwise miss the potentially life-changing experiences associated with the camp experience.
  2. Considering ACA's 20/20 Vision and that many cities' public park and recreation departments offer summer day camp programs, ACA could explore ways to connect municipal government programs with ACA's camp network.
  3. Many camps are responding to increased interest in healthy lifestyles with opportunities for physical activity and healthy food options. However, are all campers physically active for at least sixty minutes a day? Are we removing unhealthy food options? Although removing candy bars and soda may reduce retail sales in camp stores, doing so may increase healthier food habits and begin to reduce society's long-term medical costs associated with obesity.
  4. Intentional programming needs to be further considered. Camps could target societal issues such as summer learning loss, encouraging summer reading, and reducing childhood obesity. Strategically addressing such issues in marketing materials or grant opportunities could provide additional revenues to meet these challenges for greater numbers of children.
  5. Related to intentional programming is the need to collect data to "prove" our camp programs do all the great things we say they do for campers. The ability to provide systematic data on campers' growth and development demonstrates the impact and value of the camp experience to stakeholders.

The SFPS is a useful resource that provides comparisons within the camp industry that cannot be found any other way. The information to track trends, make comparisons, and find new ideas for sites, facilities, and programming are useful to improving camps. While offering more detailed examples of specific camp comparisons was beyond the scope of this brief article, camp administrators are urged to explore the richness of the collected data when day and resident camps are analyzed by ACA regions, budget sizes, or sponsor/ownership. Knowing how the business side of our operations compares to other camps like ours is likely to keep us competitive and help us offer the best possible experiences to our clientele.

(For more information on the ACA Sites, Facilities, and Programs Report: 2011, please go to www.ACAcamps.org/research/improve/2011-sites-facilities-programs-report.)

References

Duke, J., Huhman, M., & Heitzler, C. (2003). Physical activity levels among children aged 9–13 years — United States, 2002. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 52(33), 785-788.

Mark F. Roark's passion, heart, and desire (Ph.D.) includes more than twenty years of camp and recreation experiences. He is currently an assistant professor of recreation at Utah State University and the consulting editor for Camping Magazine's research column. Contact the author at mark.roark@usu.edu.

Marissa Mikami, a Utah State University Parks and Recreation senior, is an undergraduate research assistant and leads recreation experiences for youth in camp and municipal recreation. Contact the author at marissa.mikami@gmail.com.

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.

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