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Teens Today: Who Are the Teen Campers?
by Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D. and M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.
All who work at camps are interested in campers. We like to know who they are, where they come from, what they like and dislike, and how to make their time at camp into a fun memory as well as a positive developmental experience. However, some staff admit to having a challenging time understanding today's teen campers. TRU asked two camp questions to a national sample of over 1,000 teens about whether they would come to camp in 2007 (i.e., definitely would, maybe, definitely would not) and why they would go to camp. These questions served as a "lens" for examining other information about teens. This column provides a snapshot of the teens who answered the survey, their demographics, and some of their preferences.
Who Planned to Go to Camp and Why?
The sample consisted of 1,016 teens between the ages of twelve and nineteen years. Slightly more than half the group were boys and about half were ages twelve to fifteen years. The racial/ethnic background consisted of two thirds of youth who identified as white with 14 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent identified as other.
In the survey, more girls than boys said they were going to camp. Young people who said they were definitely going to camp were more likely to be white and have both parents in full-time employment (See Table 1).
Of all teens who answered the survey, the majority (55 percent) were not planning to go to camp while 13 percent said they would definitely attend an overnight summer camp in 2007. Girls tended to be slightly more likely to go to camp than boys. The top reasons to go to camp were:
Although the top choices remained the same, the order of importance differed by gender. For example, girls ranked "to have fun and make memories" as first choice while boys ranked "to do activities at camp you can't do at home." (See Table 2.)
How Does "What's In" For Teens Affect Camp?
Everyone knows that teens love to watch TV, listen to music, go online, and go out with their friends, but these activities have underlying implications. For example, when asked about their music preferences, hip-hop/rap was the number one choice for both camper and noncamper teens, but a greater percentage of teen campers also enjoyed listening to Christian music than did the noncamper teens. Music is a form of cultural expression that not only reinforces particular social mores but often creates new cultural values. Hip-hop allows and encourages a musician to "tell a story" through spoken-word poetry. This cultural movement was initiated by inner-city youth, mostly African Americans and Latinos, in the early 1970s. Yet today the majority of people who listen to hip-hop are white, often from the suburbs, and from middle and upper class families.
This culture of hip-hop has crossed racial and economic boundaries where teens now focus on messages that range from violent and amoral to godly and righteous. Collectively, the teen culture has embraced the music but added their own twist with hip-hop/rap showing up in churches and carrying messages that reflect the optimism and self-confident happiness of the millennials. When teen campers arrive at camp with ear buds in, chances are their music is reinforcing some of the characteristics of this generation including, as one young girl said, "whoever you are and wherever you are, keep up doing your best, practice, be nice, and most of all do what's right and what you should be doing (Howe & Strauss 2000, p. 365)."
The millennial teens are achievers. They assume (and the adults around them expect) that they will go to college. In the TRU survey over 97 percent of the teen campers planned to go to college and almost 93 percent of the noncamper teens had the same goal. Teens like working within goal structures, marking rates of achievement to the point where some people worry that they are trying to accomplish too much.
These teens are on missions. They are "doers" bent on accomplishment. They like challenges. They likely enter camp with ideas on what they want to do. They are ready to generate goals for their camp stay, especially skills like leadership, decision-making, and meaningful involvement that will help them blaze a path toward college and future success. They (and their parents) may challenge staff to demonstrate how valuable the camp experience is to their development and goals.
Other "in" activities of teens (i.e., shopping, going to movies, going to college, playing sports, and dating) reinforce another characteristic of millennial teens: they enjoy the company of other people. The research suggests that millennial teens have a collegial energy and civic-mindedness that sets them apart from previous generations. They like to share almost everything with each other, including power and leadership. They do not necessarily aspire to be "a boss over people." They also pay less attention to differences in their friends. Race/ethnicity, gender, and gender identity provide diversity that binds teens together.
Camp professionals find young people who are the least racially prejudiced and homophobic than any previous generation. They make fewer gender distinctions, with girls equally (if not more) interested in stepping into leadership roles focused on teamwork, action, civic engagement, and making a difference. Boys aren't threatened by these girls. In camp, these young people will likely push for times to "hang out" with each other, be interested in service that allows them to work together on collective projects that make a difference, and desire functioning as a team. Camp can offer teens exactly what they seek: positive relationships with adult staff and other campers, a supportive environment to attain goals and develop skills, and an environment that lets them enjoy the people around them.
What About Money and Jobs?
Teens going to camp were a little more likely to say their parents were their primary source of income, but all teens acknowledged parents as a main source for money. Teens not going to camp were more likely to make money from working part-time. This pattern of income is typical of millennial teens. In the past decade, their income has originated from sources most controlled by parents (gifts, money from parents, and odd jobs). The teens in the TRU survey had savings accounts (58 percent) as well as access to checking accounts and credit cards. Large differences occurred, however, regarding checking accounts and credit cards with almost twice as many noncampers reporting these banking options.
This information on sources of income raises questions for camp administrators. For example, will part-time work demands keep a teen from attending camp? Many millennial teens feel the pay-off on the skills and credentials acquired by studying, training, or interning are worth more than a low paying job. For the tuned in camp director, offering programs and opportunities such as leadership training, team building, problem-solving, and critical thinking prompted in challenge activities, and CIT and junior counselor training will likely resonate. For these teens a camp experience may be just the opportunity needed for their college application.
The information from the TRU Survey shared by these teens supported observations about this millennial generation. In the following "Teens Today" columns, specific issues such as social issues, healthy behaviors, technology use, and marketing approaches will be discussed in-depth. While some differences may emerge between campers and their noncamping peers, the essential message from this "snapshot" of millennial teens is that the camp world needs these young people. They have collegial energy, optimism, achievement needs, and potential for power, but they also need to be challenged, tested, and guided. What better place than camp to do exactly that!
Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., is a professor at North Carolina State University and has been associated with ACA for many years. She has conducted research on camping as well as served on various boards including Education and Research. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is the senior researcher for ACA. Contact the author at
Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.