We’re All in the Same Boat Together: Trends and Issues in Camps

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., and M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.

Since the first days of organized camp for children over 150 years ago, camp administrators have been challenged to respond to emerging issues that impact the camp experience. Although the value of camp has changed little over the years, the ways that camps are organized and administered has continued to evolve, often in response to these issues. The twenty-first century has brought new challenges to camp administrators who continue to endorse the original idea of “Better Camping for All.” In this article, we examine some of these trends and issues as a way to address common challenges faced by camp administrators in 2011 and to compare to data collected in 2007 and 2009. The results also have implications for relevant professional development for all levels of camp staff.

Background for the Emerging Issues Survey

During spring 2011, survey questions were designed to help ACA staff ask camp administrators about their perceptions regarding societal issues as well as administrative, staffing, and programming concerns. Data were collected in April from 228 primary contacts at accredited camps (about 2,300) through an electronic survey with a process similar to the 2007 and 2009 studies. A 12 percent click-through rate was obtained, which was a good response rate for an electronic survey such as this one. Questions were asked concerning a list of issue areas similar to previous studies with new questions related to, for example, electronic media and financial concerns. New questions were added based on input from ACA’s Camp Crisis Hotline analyses, ACA staff, the Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation members, and specific requests from camp professionals.

We noted who responded to this survey to assure that the responses reflected the ACA community. The 2011 sample included input from all ACA sections, field offices, and affiliates. The titles of respondents were primarily camp director, camp owner or operator, or agency executive. Slightly more males than females responded with all age groups equally represented. Camps from all major affiliations (i.e., agency, independent for-profit, independent nonprofit, and religiously affiliated) were included with a similar frequency of responses from each group. Over two-thirds of the responses were from primarily coed camps with 14 percent representing a combination, 10 percent for girls only, and 5 percent for boys only.

Major Issue Areas and Trends

One of the values of the Emerging Issues Survey is the ability to track issues across time. Some of the same issues questions were asked during each administration of the survey to provide trend information. Table 1 shows the average of responses based on a four-point Likert scale with “1” equal to very unimportant and “4” equal to very important. Although the statistical standard deviations are not included, they were small, which indicated a good deal of agreement among respondents concerning the mean scores of the issues.

Table 1

A Comparison of Importance of Issue Areas in Camps1

Area 2011 Average 2009 Average 2007 Average
Parent Communication 3.47 3.762 3.65
Financial Health of Your Camp 3.40 3.50
Liability Coverage and Risk Management 3.37
Staff Training 3.36 3.54 3.53
Programming 3.29 3.41 3.29
Healthy Eating and Physical Activity 3.25 3.37 3.31
Medical Insurance and Medication 3.17
Electronics and Social Networks 3.17 2.95 3.12
Staff Recruitment, Screening, and Hiring 3.12 3.48 3.53
Problem Behaviors 3.12 3.24 3.25
Crisis Management 3.12 3.25 3.28
Infectious/Communicable Diseases 3.12
Security of Camp Property 3.11 3.23 3.27
Outcome Evaluation 2.97 3.06 3.13
Severe Weather 2.93 2.99 2.85
Infestations 2.89
Campers or Staff Engaging in Sexual Behaviors 2.42
Sexual Orientation of Campers or Staff 2.26
Camper Pregnancies 1.77 1.74 1.53

1Average based on four-point Likert Scale with 1 = very unimportant and 4 = very important
2Shaded area indicates highest average score across three surveys

The top six issue areas in 2011 were parent communication, financial health, liability coverage and risk management, staff training, camp programming, and healthy eating and physical activity. Parent communication headed the top of the list for both the 2011 and the 2009 surveys. Interestingly, staff training remained an important area, as was true for 2007 and 2009, although the importance this year was slightly lower than in the past. Other issues that were perceived as “important” (“3”on the Likert scale) included: medical insurance and medication, electronics and social networks, staff recruitment and hiring, problem behaviors in campers, crisis management, infectious/ communicable diseases, and security of camp property. Although still perceived as somewhat important, the least critical areas were outcome evaluations, severe weather, infestations, campers or staff engaging in sexual behavior, sexual orientation of campers and staff, and camper pregnancies. The fact that no differences in importance were found based on camp affiliation (i.e., agency, independent for-profit, independent nonprofit, or religiously affiliated) indicated that the concerns cut across all types of camps within ACA.

What We Learned About Specific Areas of Interest

Another section of the survey asked camp administrators their perceptions about specifically focused issues. Food issues appeared to be an area gaining more attention — especially for resident camps. Over 70 percent of all camps said they tried to accommodate the specific dietary needs / allergies associated with peanut / tree nut allergies, vegetarian preferences, lactose intolerance, and gluten-free needs. About 20 percent of the camps participated in the USDA Summer Food Service Program with over half of those camps serving more than 400 children each in 2010. Over half of the respondents said they would change food services / buying programs to save on costs in the coming year.

Electronics and social media continue to be important concerns for many camps, even though the specific issues constantly change and evolve. Two-thirds of all respondents said they did NOT allow any personal electronic devices at any time at camp (e.g., cell phones, hand-held games). Camp directors, however, did indicate they used social media outlets such as Facebook (87 percent), Twitter (39 percent), and YouTube (46 percent) for communication and marketing purposes. E-mail exchanges between campers and parents as well as Web sites with photos were allowed in almost three-fourths of the camps. The majority of camp directors (63 percent) reported that staff could only use cell phones for personal use during their time off. However, most camps allowed the use of cell phones by staff for camp-related business. Over 85 percent of the camps had policies about what camp-related online information could be posted by staff, but only 55 percent had policies for campers.

In response to present financial concerns, almost two-thirds of the directors said they would likely implement new or raise current program charges in the coming year. Also concerning budget and staffing issues, respondents said they would likely cut back by hiring fewer support staff (42 percent) and would tweak staff-to-camper ratios slightly (33 percent). Reducing staff training costs and recruiting more volunteers were also noted by at least one-fourth of the respondents. Most respondents indicated that the number of international staff hired was the same, but a decreased use rather than increased use was anticipated. Although one-third of the camps did not use volunteer staff, the remainder indicated that using volunteers was either staying the same or increasing.

Not surprising, capital/infrastructure expenditures were noted as cost savings areas. Almost two-thirds of the respon¬dents said they would delay non-critical maintenance in the coming year with almost half delaying capital expenditures. Other options for cost reduction were seeking funding from outside sources such as alums, donors, grants, corporations, and agencies (69 percent); implementing green measures (68 percent); and expand¬ing rental opportunities (46 percent). Although over one-fourth of the camps had not received any grants, over half had received a grant from a foundation or nonprofit organization.

Some directors indicated they were trying to respond to emerging needs for special groups of campers. For example, during the past five years, 21 percent of the administrators indicated they had developed camps for military/deployed families and another 10 percent had instituted bereavement camps. Specific camper behavior issues also were described in terms of staff training. Over 90 percent of the camps indicated that bullying was a “somewhat” to “very significant” area for training. Four out of five camps had written policies regarding bullying and two-thirds communicated that policy to parents. Camper conversa¬tions related to sex and sexual behavior among campers were rated as “somewhat” to “very significant” training issues by two-thirds of the camps.

So What Does This Mean for Camp Professionals?

Four key points help summarize what we learned about emerging issues faced by camp professionals in 2011.

  • The examination of trends indicated that concerns have been somewhat consistent over the six-year period since the biennial Emerging Issues Survey was initiated, with top concerns focused on parent communication, financial health, liability and risk management, staff training, programming, and healthy eating and physical activity. However, most of the issue areas were rated with a slightly lower importance in 2011 than in previous years. While trying to understand why these issues may be decreasing in importance, it is interesting to consider that ACA educational programs (e.g., conferences, webinars, journal articles) have used these data over the past six years for resources and professional development in some of these areas.
  • A fair amount of agreement was expressed by the camp administrators involved in this study. While camp structures and missions vary by type of camp, sponsorship, and clientele, these differences had little impact on the importance of issues confronted.
  • Electronic media and social networks were slightly more important in 2011 than in the past. This area appears to be one that will likely remain important as it is continually changing and new issues emerge regarding the accessibility and use of technology.
  • Another interesting aspect of examining concerns, issues, and trends is not only the importance of the areas, but also the severity of the implications. In any area of risk management, aspects of the importance as well as the severity of consequences must be considered. For example, sexual behavior among campers or staff did not seem to be an issue that rose often, but when it did, it was a huge concern with potentially critical impacts on the camp and staff.

Examining ongoing issues is important for a professional field like organized camping. By trending issues, information is gathered that provides a means for planning educational programs. The results also offer a potential way for camp administrators to collectively solve similar problems. The saying “Misery loves company” does not necessarily apply here, but knowing that one is not alone can also be a means to offer and get support. The information gathered through systematic surveys like the Emerging Issues Survey can be a strong evidence base for future collaborations among ACA leadership, local field offices, and camp professionals. Although we may have no control over some of the issues that we will face, we will make good progress through focused professional development and the creation of needed resources if we recognize we may all be in the same boat needing to work together.

A special note of thanks is extended to Laurie Browne for her help with survey administration and the camp profes¬sionals who completed the Emerging Issues Survey. Full results can be found at www.ACAcamps.org/research/improve/emerging-issues.

Karla Henderson is a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. She currently chairs ACA’s Committee on the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE) and is a member of the Active Living Research National Advisory Committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is director of research for the American Camp Association. She can be contacted at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org.

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.

 

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