Research Notes: Ways to Promote Youth Development in Camp

Research Notes

by Gwynn Powell and Marge Scanlin

Imagine that you are a new staff member, parent, or visitor walking
into a camp . . . you didn't know where to go, the people responsible
for you didn't seem to know quite what to do with you, the atmosphere
is unwelcoming. What feelings does this image conjure? Instead, imagine
that everything you did in camp was focused on creating a top quality
experience that would make campers want to return. Would you take those

If we want camp to portray "quality," we must understand the "building
blocks" of camp programs and positive youth development! What program
elements are essential to create the successful transition of campers
from youth to adulthood? What are the conditions that increase the likelihood
of a program delivering those elements to a diverse group of campers?
Insight into the answers to these questions could provide valuable building
blocks to catapult camp programs into the future.

A framework has been developed to assist with the evaluation and development
of youth development programs, including camps. A report from the committee
on Community-Level Programs for Youth (Eccles & Gootman, 2002) defined
what was "known" about youth development settings and then synthesized
information from a variety of sources. While the report draws many conclusions
and offers recommendations, a key finding delineates the features of
positive developmental settings. Applying these features directly to
the process of evaluating camp programs can improve the level of quality
and potentially increase the ability to support youth development. The
foundation for the report is the statement: "Some youth are doing very
well; some youth are taking dangerous risks and doing poorly; all young
people need a variety of experiences to develop to their full potential;
and some young people have unmet needs and are particularly at risk of
participating in problem behaviors." This diverse range of youth is being
served in a variety of ways in camp programs across the country. There
are campers from all three categories in your camp!

Summer camp professionals and researchers from many disciplines (psychology,
sociology, recreation, etc.) have all pondered how to identify and replicate
the quality in youth development that we "know when we see it." Identifying
the measures or features of this quality is a critical task as we hold
the future in our hands. Investigations conducted in other youth development
settings (youth-at-risk programs, after-school settings, etc.) offer
insight. Research is a tool that can help us, as camping professionals,
to improve practice (program, facilities, and policies), understand behaviors
(campers, staff, parents, and community), and justify funding (expenditures,
investments, and fund-raising).

The first step is to examine the outline of the eight universal features
that researchers suggest need to be present in all programs to support
youth. In the chart (Adobe Acrobat
is needed to view this file)
, each feature is named
and described, opposite descriptions are provided, and camp-specific
actions to accomplish the feature are listed. These features and their
associated descriptors provide a framework that can be used to investigate
and evaluate camp programs on several levels.

The next step is to take the flow chart below and use these series of
questions to incorporate each feature into your camp setting. Answering
these questions (and others they trigger) for each feature will likely
reveal areas where you are making excellent progress, as well as expose
areas to improve and discuss among staff and campers.

Take these features of positive youth development and begin to wonder,
begin to question, and begin to address the answers. If you have ever
raised a question, found an explanation, and then tried to predict behavior
based upon that explanation . . . you are doing evaluation and research!
You are engaged in research as you strategize for the future and approach
problem-solving opportunities. We have potential for increasing our ability
to help the campers we serve . . . and improve the quality of our program
all at the same time! We can more effectively support camper growth by
learning more about ways to structure our program and evaluate our results.
Watch for more information from ACA's National Research Project, information
at regional and national conferences, and Camping Magazine to support
you in your efforts. In the meantime, keep wondering and putting those
questions into action!

Community Programs to Promote Youth Development is available for order
or as an "open book" online at

Eccles, J & Gootman, J. A. (Eds). (2002). Community Programs
to Promote Youth Development.
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. National Academy
Press: Washington, DC.

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

Marge Scanlin is the executive officer of research and
intellectual resources for the American Camping Association and is
directing the outcomes research project.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.