Research Notes: Facilitating the Art of Friendship

by Gwynn Powell

The connection between friendship and camp is both a foundation and a common marketing claim. Yet, the basis for friendship formation is complex - for some, it is easy; for others, painfully difficult. Camps claim that new friendships occur at camp; however, what intentional steps do camp professionals take to facilitate formation of friendship bonds?

Previous research by Newcomb and Bagwell (1995) indicated several predictors of peer acceptance and friendship quality were related to social behavior (cooperation, helpfulness, and supportiveness) and non-social characteristics (athletic ability, cognitive competence, and physical attractiveness). Hanna (1998) investigated the relationship between friendship quality and peer acceptance among summer camp participants. Fifty-three boys and sixty-five girls, ranging in age from eleven to fifteen, completed a series of questionnaires that addressed their perceptions about friendship and peer acceptance.

The first questionnaire, administered on the first day of camp, included questions about campers' perceptions of their peer relationships at home and their own social and non-social characteristics. After four days, campers completed a second questionnaire about relationships with other campers in their group. In addition, counselors rated campers on the same issues. Some primary findings from this study were:

  • The perceptions of athletic ability and cognitive competence did not relate to friendship quality or peer group acceptance in the camp setting.
  • Campers were aware of peer perception.
  • New peer group acceptance related both positively and negatively to  past experiences.
  • Positive social behaviors predicted peer group acceptance but not  friendship quality.
  • Negative social behavior predicted negative peer group acceptance and  negative friendship quality.
  • Physical attractiveness was related to positive peer group acceptance and friendship quality.

Campers who were successful at making friends and being accepted at home continue to do so at camp, and those who were unsuccessful also continue in similar patterns. Additionally, campers were aware of success or failure, which added to the circular process.

Implications for Camp

For many, camp provides a unique opportunity. Camp can be a respite from constraints and a place to gain confidence in social skills, which ultimately effect friendship and acceptance prospects. The implications of this research lead to examination of two core areas of camp: staff training and program philosophy.

Staff training
The essential staff-training issue revolves around management of group dynamics and skill-building opportunities for individuals. The management of group dynamics begins with counselor role-modeling and flows into direct and indirect actions taken by the counselor. While the predictors discussed in the research may not be new to staff, the overt awareness of them can be a powerful tool. Staff need to recognize their own biases, which influence how they relate to the campers in their respective groups.

If counselors make an initial effort to get to know all of their campers, each child has a greater opportunity to learn or positively reinforce friendship-making skills. Giving each child an opportunity to interact with the counselor as a friend takes intentional effort on the part of a staff member. The counselor's goal should be to empower each child within the group to feel comfortable and to identify his or her unique personality contribution for the group. It takes time and a deeper look into ways of encouragement, but giving a child social confidence is even more important for staff to do than teaching a skill in a program area.

When counselors show campers that they are valued, the opportunity to manage croup dynamics begins. Campers with lifelong patterns of negative interactions and campers who make friends easily can learn from one another. At the close of the day, a friendship circle gives campers a forum to discuss feelings and ideas. For example, they may say "I liked when you helped me . . ." or "You made me feel badly when . . .").

For campers reaching out to try a new skill, intentional discussion of how the peer interaction was received or rejected will offer support. Being able to help campers name the positive skills they are using and focus on the effects of including others is beneficial to both individuals and the group.

The counselor sets the tone for the discussion through their personal sense of humor and their participation with the group, demonstrating whether hurtful teasing or interaction is tolerated. A simple statement, such as "I wonder how that comment made him feel. . ." can start an entire conversation as a teachable moment. Often staff need confidence to initiate such conversations, so provide appropriate continuing-education sessions throughout the summer not just during staff training.

Program philosophy
Many camps operate with a stated mission or purpose and then interpret that mission through their programs. A strong mission statement helps staff see the reasons behind the camp's choices and puts them in a better position to support and interpret the mission to campers.

The program and implementation philosophy provide the backdrop where camp friendships form. What are the overt messages sent to campers at your camp? Is the program organized competitively, non-competitively, or cooperatively? Is the culture and atmosphere of your camp in alignment with your stated goals? What are the subtle messages sent through actions by staff or program organization? Do the songs sung around your campfire support or undermine your mission? What opportunities for success are offered that are not at the expense of others?

Step back from your personal understanding of your program and look with new eyes (perhaps through those of your first-time staff members' and campers') at how your mission is being delivered on a daily basis. What things do you see that make you proud, and what things do you want to alter?

Friendship and peer acceptance are important aspects of life. Encourage your staff and camper groups to seek a new awareness of how their actions can offer support or discouragement to others. Create an environment where campers who are unaccustomed to being part of the group feel accepted for their individual strengths, and they may take that confidence and be more accepted in their future endeavors.


Hanna, N. (1998). Predictors of friendship quality and peer group acceptance at summer camp. Journal of Early Adolescence, 18, 291-318.
Newcomb, A. F., & Bagwell, C.L. (1995). Children's friendship relations: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 306-347.

Originally published in the 1999 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.