Research Notes: Life Skills Developed on the Camp "Stage"

Research Notes

by Gwynn Powell

Grassy fields, sandy shorelines, piney breezes, shady knolls . . . each camp has its unique physical characteristics that combine to serve as the stage for the camp experience. Just as in a theatrical play, the role of the stage ranges in its function and style and can define the scope of the experience. The physical environment of camp has the potential to enhance or detract from the overall perceptions of the camp experience. Three different areas of research - sense of place, place attachment, and environmental competence - offer insight, which can be used to enrich the planning and implementation of camp activities and may lead to greater overall participant satisfaction and retention.

Sense of Place

Experience of place is a multifaceted interaction between how individuals adapt to the environment, seek to enact the opportunities available in the environment, and draw personal significance from the experience (Canter, 1997). Any type of physical setting has constraints or pressures (temperature, size, danger, etc.) that cause adaptation and adjustment; at the same time, the physical setting offers specific ways to achieve goals that could not take place elsewhere (a specific ambiance or closer feel). The combination of adaptation and opportunity contribute to the creation of meaning for each individual. Sense of place evolves out of the interaction of the three elements.

Action by camp staff has potential to influence perceptions of place based on the form and function of specific spaces. By asking questions of yourself and your staff, you have the potential to harness this information to foster a stronger sense of place for your camp facility.

  • Are there certain spaces reserved for particularly meaningful rituals or traditions?
  • Do places have names (as opposed to numerical designation) that evoke a certain feeling or trigger an emotion?
  • Do the lighting choices offer the ability to alter the mood in subtle ways to cue the campers and staff that a mindset change is expected?
  • Are the night sounds capitalized on and explained as soothing forces rather than used to scare?
  • Is the fact that a swimming hole might have frogs or water snakes explained as a natural encounter with wildlife (and therefore treated respectfully)?
  • Are new staff members encouraged to express perceptions and ideas about the potential use of space?

Place Attachment

The concept of place attachment is, on the surface, a feeling of emotional attachment to a specific place; yet, it is comprised of a very complex amalgamation of experiences and links. Attachments can vary, can be positive or negative, and can be a mixture of responses to the environment and responses to the encounters with people and activity in a specific space.

A specific research study examined a measure of "rootedness" in order to predict college students' interest in returning to their hometowns (McAndrew, 1998). The college students were asked to respond to a series of statements, and their answers were examined for connections between the role of family in choice of college, their desire to return home after graduation, feelings of homesickness, and the distance between home and school.

If the word "camp" is substituted for the word "hometown," an opportunity is created to examine points that may shed insight into feelings of rootedness that camps seek to provide for children and staff. The items would then read:

  • I am extremely satisfied with my present camp.
  • I know a lot about the history of my camp.
  • I could draw a very accurate picture of my camp.
  • I have gone to the same camp my whole life.
  • I love to reminisce about the places where I played at camp.

This practical insight suggests that it could be important for campers to have an experience that meets their expectations (the basis of satisfaction), to know the physical layout of the camp, to have a sense of the history of the camp, and to have experiences they want to remember (with opportunities to reflect and reminisce about them). Obviously, you want campers to form emotional bonds with the people and places of camp, but breaking the components of attachment into tangible goals and objectives could make implementation much easier.

Environmental Competence

In a broad sense, the term environmental competence refers to one's ability to cope with immediate surroundings (whether outdoors or not) in a constructive manner. At camp, in a specific sense, the experience of coping with the world of camp provides practice in the necessary life skill of coping with the larger world.

Steele (1980) categorized environmental competence in terms of:

  • social systems (sharing information, problem-solving techniques, inter-personal interaction, rules and procedures to facilitate use of the setting, norms which promote positive concern for the setting)
  • practical skills (exploration and scouting of structure and possibilities, making contacts quickly, matching self with the setting, adjusting mood to space, quick personalization of space, creative custodianship such as minimum-impact camping)

Pederson (1999) expanded the categorization within practical skills to examine specific outdoor skills (building temporary shelters, building a fire, identifying edible plants), way-finding (being able to follow directions, finding alternative routes, navigating unfamiliar places), and resource conservation (recycling, examining pollution impact). While these skills seem most applicable to wilderness settings, the specific application of way-finding applies everywhere. Being able to follow verbal directions, getting lost and re-finding the way, and the generation of alternative routes to accomplish a goal apply equally well to busy street corners or complex building designs.

Think of the camp environment as a stage viewed through the lenses of sense of place, place attachment, and environmental competence. Thinking about these concepts and seeking to encourage emotional bonds and practical navigation skills may serve as a springboard for new applications and ways of encouraging improved life skills outside the camp stage.

Canter, D. (1997). The Facets of Place. In G. T. Moore & R. W. Marans (Eds.), Advances in Environment, Behavior, and Design (Vol. 4, pp. 109-147). New York: Plenum Press.
McAndrew, F. T. (1998). The measurement of rootedness and the prediction of attachment to home-towns in college students. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18, 409-417.
Pedersen, D.M. (1999). Dimensions of environmental competence. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 303-308.
Steele, F. (1980). Defining and developing environmental competence. Advances in Experimental Social Processes, 2, 225-244.

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration. She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2000 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.