The ACA Camp Research Symposium: Practical Knowledge for Your Camp

Research Notes

by Gwynn Powell, Ph.D.

An understanding of the partnerships (with parents, organizations, and
links to future careers) that exist at camp prove beneficial in the supervision,
support, and training of staff. The following studies were presented
at the Camp Research Symposium and provide practical applications for
camp directors and staff to consider for the current season and beyond.

Multimodal Homesickness Prevention

Christopher Thurber, Phillips Exeter Academy,

Although homesickness is an ancient phenomenon, no preventive interventions
have yet been empirically tested. However, more than thirty empirical
studies have documented the risk factors for homesickness, which include
little previous experience away from home, insecure attachment to caregivers,
low perceived control, preseparation negative attitudes, social disconnection,
and significant cultural and environmental shifts. A combination of psychoeducation,
coping instruction, novelty reduction, attitude enhancement, practice
separation, preseparation contact with the new environment, and specialized
surrogate caregiver training was hypothesized to significantly reduce
homesickness intensity and associated behavior problems. The goal was
to create an inexpensive, portable prevention program that any camp could

Participants were all boys who ranged in age from eight to sixteen years
(mean age = 13.3 years, SD = 1.7 years) who camped at a traditional,
residential, boys' summer sports camp that offered two-week sessions.
Three months prior to the start of camp, all prospective first-year camper
families (n = 80) received two illustrated color booklets.

The first booklet (sixteen pages) aimed to enhance positive attitudes
and familiarize boys with the camp; the second booklet (twelve pages)
aimed to educate parents and children about homesickness phenomenology
and provide instructions on empirically validated ways to cope with it.
One month later, one of several veteran camp staff members called these
families to communicate his enthusiasm about their enrollment and answer
questions they had about life at camp and coping with homesickness.

At camp, self-report questionnaires were administered every other day
to assess campers' moods, levels of homesickness, and satisfaction
with camp. Cabin leaders completed rating scales at the end of the session
to assess problematic behaviors.

Compared to a demographically equivalent sample of first-year campers
who did not receive this multimodal intervention, the first-year campers
in this sample were less homesick, enjoyed camp more, and evidenced fewer
behavior problems.


  • Severe homesickness is preventable in first-year campers.
  • A combination of normalizing homesickness, teaching children
    ways to cope, encouraging practice time away from home, coaching parents
    not to make "pick-up deals," providing social support, and
    educating children about the upcoming camp experience works by: reducing
    novelty, increasing positive attitudes, bolstering coping competence,
    and building social connections.
  • At a cost of only $10 per camper, this is an efficient, powerful,
    portable intervention that any camp could use to reduce homesickness.

Practical Applications

In order to maximize camper's adjustment and minimize the intensity
of their homesickness, the camp needs to take a number of steps:

  1. Design ways to familiarize new campers with camp before their
    arrival. A major component of the written materials campers received
    in this study was provision of factual information — both in text and photos — about
  2. Give kids information about the most powerful ways to cope with
    homesickness. This information (available in The Summer Camp Handbook,
    by Thurber & Malinowski)
    increases campers' confidence in their ability to deal with this
    developmentally normative phenomenon.
  3. Encourage practice time away from home. Once children have the
    information in Step 2, they need to put it to use in the months before
    camp. This could be a weekend at a friend's house or several days at
    a child's grandparents.
  4. Discourage "pick-up deals" in which parents offer to pick
    up their child if the say they are homesick. This situation paralyzes
    your staff and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Orientation materials
    must clearly delineate to parents how destructive these "pick-up deals"
  5. Promote social connection. Whether through a precamp phone call,
    a new camper/returning camper buddy system, or other mechanism, camps
    must design a program wherein new campers feel immediately connected
    to their peers and surrogate caregivers.

Essential to the Mission: Positioning the Camp Experience Within the

K. Dale Adkins, Re.D., Western Illinois University, Department of Recreation,

Park and Tourism Administration,

Rationale and Purpose

In today's environment for the professional camp administrator,
it is increasingly a challenge to interpret to multiple audiences the
value and purpose of the camp experience. The challenge does not end
there but becomes more critical when the camp's parent organization
is questioning the validity and viability of the camp experience within
the context of the overall mission and purpose of the agency/organization.
Within basic leisure programming theory, determining what is delivered
and provided must always be related to and support the overall mission
of the organization. The purpose of this study was to determine the perceptions
of the camp within the context of the agency's organization and
structure and its relationship to the agency's purpose.

Three groups of camp staff were interviewed for this study: summer seasonal
administrative staff; full-time, year-round camp staff; and organizational
staff at related service centers. The years of affiliation with the camp
included staff with almost one year to forty-two years. They were asked:
1) How do you think the parent organization perceives camp? 2) How can
camp strengthen its relationship to the parent organization?

The interviews allowed the staff to convey thoughts and feelings about
the context of camp and perceptions that could give direction to the
camp professional. Through triangulation of information among staff,
the data could be confirmed or clarified to add to the understanding
that was being sought. As interviews were conducted, the interviewer
actively identified themes and ideas that were related that could assist
the camp in strengthening its relationship with the parent organization.

Some common themes emerged that the camp can use to better interpret
how it "fits" or contributes to the mission and overall purpose
of the parent organization.

  1. Staff relation to the parent organization impacts perceptions.
  2. The need for increased communication between camp and parent
  3. The level of involvement by staff with the camp shapes attitudes.
  4. The camp must discover approaches to show how the camp facility
    and program complement what the parent organization is doing.
  5. The camp needs to develop collaborative experiences/programs with
    other departments within the parent organization to gain greater visibility
  6. The camp must change perception of the parent organization regarding
    the camp as being essential to the mission and purpose of the parent

Practical Applications

The camp professional is in the position to interpret to the multiple
audiences that must constantly be nurtured and maintained at all times.

Camp administrators must spend time with the seasonal summer administrative
staff to help them understand the dynamics of the camp and its relationship
with the parent organization. The further removed the summer administrative
staff are from the day-to-day operation of camp, the more challenging
it is for them to understand why professional staff from the parent organization
are not around during the summer. The camp administrator is pivotal in
clarifying and assisting summer staff when questions are being asked.

Camp administrators need to be intentional in creating venues for the
parent organization professionals to be on property during the summer
camp experience. The old adage of "out of sight, out of mind" possibly
contributes to a perception that camp is not important to the summer
staff. The intentionality of visits and presence on camp property while
programs are going on could contribute much to staff morale and project
a message that what you are about is important. This awareness by summer
camp staff by the professional staff of the parent organization that
the camp experience is valued would do much to bridge the communication
gap of never hearing or seeing anyone from the main office.

The camp may or may not need to do anything different from what it is
already doing. The staff with direction from the camp administrator may
need to reframe or reinterpret what is being done that communicates to
the parent organization that the camp experience is contributing to the
overall purpose and not a drain on resources. The paradigm shift in today's
world of camp, particularly with nonprofit camps, is essential to be
able to continue and remain on the landscape of services to youth and
their families.

Even changing or presenting what a camp does may not be enough to avoid
elimination from the service delivery of the parent organization. It
is incumbent upon camp administrators to seek partnerships within the
parent organization structure and show support to and enhancement of
what others are doing. The camp experience and property need to become
essential to what others are doing as opposed to always being viewed
on the receiving end.

Weaving the Seeds of Pastoral Vocation

Cheryl Gans, Columbia Theologian Seminary Student,

The field of organized camp needs documentation showing an understanding
of the spiritual impact of those who participate in the camp experience.
Each summer participants of all ages attend camps, retreats, and mission
trips, returning home with stories and life-changing experiences. An
individual regardless of age engages God in a different way at camp beyond
their home worship setting lead by parents and religious leaders. The
purpose of this study is to reveal how adults with previous camp experience
reflect on those experiences and how these memories shape their lives
and desire to enter ministry as a vocation.


The study was a qualitative study looking at the camp experience as
a foundation for choosing pastoral ministry as a vocation. This exploratory
study provided a sample of seven participants with open-ended questions
concerning the impact of their spiritual formation as a result of their
camp experience. The participants ranged in age from thirty-one to fifty-six.
Geographically, the participants were located primarily in the Southeast
and Northeast. Membership in the American Camp Association was held by
five participants.

Research Themes

This research reveals five themes resulting from this type of reflection.
They are God moments, prayer, God's presence, worship, and trust

  • God moments occur at any time of day during camp. God is
    revealed while looking intensely at creation and finding enjoyment
    and wonder in all that God created in the natural environment. These
    activities occur spontaneously through the day.
  • Prayer is a central factor in the camp experience because
    it occurs as a result of God moments. When campers and staff experience
    God, the natural response is prayer. The leadership at camp usually
    directs and nurtures the prayer experience. Campers learn to pray continuously
    while living in a supportive and nurturing environment. There are many
    opportunities for prayer, and campers learn how to pray with others
    and nurture their growing relationship with God.
  • Thus, God's presence is revealed to the children who take
    time to look. God is more present in different locations around camp,
    within people, and within the natural environment.
  • Worship is a natural result of an encounter with God. When
    a person experiences God they are drawn to offer prayers of praise
    and thanksgiving. Camps with God intertwined into their programming
    naturally have opportunities for worship services. Structured worship
    teaches the faith tradition and lifts praises to God through music
    and singing, prayer, talks, etc. God enjoys hearing creation sing praises.
  • The final theme is trust activities. This research shows
    that God is present in activities where trust is vital and necessary.
    The two main trust activities with a spiritual focus are backpacking
    and the ropes course.

Camp nurtures the spirit within the individual. Just like fire is needed
to open the seeds of the Longleaf pine tree to initiate new growth; the
camp experience prepares the foundation of a person's life so that
the seeds of faith can be planted and nourished. When the time is right
God reveals the memory of the camp environment that nurtured the seeds
leading to the desire to pursue ministry as a pastoral vocation.

Practical Applications

Does the camp experience make a spiritual difference in the lives of
those that attend? The answer is yes. The camp experience provides a
nurturing setting where campers, staff, and directors experience God's
love and gain a desire for sharing that unconditional love with others.
Camp provides an alternative setting to experience God through the natural
environment and corporate worship. As a result participants become aware
of God's claim on their lives which leads to a life-long commitment
of ministry as a vocation.

There are many ways camp directors can spread the seeds of God's
unconditional love. One way is to encourage camp staff to stop for God
moments during the camp day. By teaching staff the importance of seizing
the moment and talking with campers about God's creation, they
may carry this memory into other aspects of their lives. During staff
training stop to look at animals, insects, and plants found in God's
creation. Ask the staff questions about what they see. Teach the staff
to share with campers the joy of hugging a tree or smelling a flower,
watching clouds, etc. The response will likely be a prayer of thanksgiving
for what is experienced in God's creation.

Teach staff how to incorporate prayer into all aspects of the camp experience.
Start each day with a prayer using the entire body. For example, have
all staff stand up and raise their arms to the sky. In a loud voice offer
praises to God for their arms, legs, ears, nose, eyes, etc. Have them
touch the part when they offer praises. Next offer prayers for the breath
of life. Encourage them to whisper or shout, "I love you God" when
they inhale. Then when they exhale have them repeat, "Praise be
to God." As a camp director, model prayer through personal study
of Scripture and teach staff to do the same. The campers may then model
the behavior and desire to respond in the same way. When challenging
situations arise teach staff how to diffuse situations through prayer.
Prayer mixed with laughter can diffuse an angry situation and turn it
into an opportunity for thanksgiving.

Look for God's presence in the natural environment. During staff
training give each staff member a journal and suggest they look for and
write down every day three things they see in nature and camp that remind
them of God's presence. During evening devotions refer to the lists
made by the staff and offer prayers. Incorporate times during staff training
for individual reflection and silence. The staff can then teach campers
how to abide in God's presence and see silence as a gift.

Nurture leadership skills in staff and campers through active participation
in corporate worship. Give staff and campers responsibilities as leaders
in worship that nurture their spiritual gifts. Include everyone in the
music making and singing during worship. Place a simple instrument (stick,
spoon, pots & pans) in their hands and let them experience the rhythm
of the tune while praising God. Teach praise songs, and sing them all
day long.

Develop nurturing physical, mental, and spiritual relationships through
participation in trust activities. Pack backpacks and go on a day or
overnight hike. Talk about dependence and ways to trust God and others.
Provide staff with basic initiative games that develop trust and teamwork
to reduce anxiety before entering a ropes course. Teach staff how to
develop trust within their camper groups by providing safe physical touch,
words of encouragement, and spiritual awareness.

Gwynn Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of
Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia.

Originally published in the 2006 May/June
issue of Camping Magazine.