Research Notes: What Happens to Campers at Camp?

Research Notes

by Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D.

Youth attend camp for a variety of reasons, and research suggests that
camp participation impacts youth in multiple ways by enhancing affective
(self-esteem and self-concept), cognitive (knowledge, skills, abilities,
and attitudes), behavioral (self-reported behaviors and behavioral intentions),
physical, social, and spiritual growth (Shepard & Speelman 1986;
Gillett et al. 1991; Hopkins & Putnam 1993; Chenery 1994; Brannan & Fullerton
1999; Henderson 2001). Yet, there is still much to learn about the camp
experience, especially from the camper perspective. The following studies
were presented at the 2003 Camp Research Symposium held at the American
Camping Association National Conference. The studies provide practical
applications for camp directors and staff to consider for the current
season and beyond.

Summer Camps for Children
with Cancer and Their Siblings: Impactof Social Comparisons on
Psychosocial Outcomes

Lisa J. Meltzer, Ph.D., (
and Mary Rourke, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Intuitively, we know that camps are a good thing for children,
especially those with chronic illnesses. But there is little
research that has been able to demonstrate why these camps are
good. For example, self-esteem, which has been most commonly
studied, does not change in one week. Many people in both the
camp and medical communities argue against disease-specific camps.
They state that perhaps children should return to “normalcy” as
soon as possible, including attending camp with “regular” kids.
This study investigated one possible reason why disease-specific
camps are important: social comparisons.

One hundred nine children (sixty-six with cancer and forty-three
siblings) who attended the Ronald McDonald Camp (RMC) in the
summer of 2002 participated in the study. Participants were 45
percent male and 83 percent Caucasian. Twenty-seven percent of
campers were attending for the first time. Ages ranged from eight
to eighteen years old. Participants completed questionnaires
on the first and last days of camp. Questionnaires were administered
in the cabins by volunteer counselors. Time was built into the
camp schedule (thirty minutes each day) for the study, thus participants
did not miss any camp activity time to participate. On the last
day, participants were asked to complete the Harter self-concept
measure twice, once comparing themselves to children at home
and once comparing themselves to children at camp.

How Are These Findings Helpful to Camp Professionals?

We all know camp is an amazing place. These results suggest
that disease-specific camps allow children a membership in a
community of similar others, which in the long run will likely
enhance self-esteem, self-concept, and social acceptance. The
following are suggestions for camp planners, directors, organizers,
and fundraisers.

  1. Plan disease-specific camp experiences. Disease-specific
    camps are helpful. This doesn’t mean you have to spend
    the week focusing on the child’s illness or illness experience.
    By simply bringing together children who have had similar experiences,
    you can help decrease social isolation and improve self-concept.

  2. Include siblings in your camps for populations with special
    needs. Siblings are often overlooked during a child’s
    illness, but also face many challenges when a brother or sister
    is ill. In this study for example, siblings were able to spend
    time with others who have been through the “cancer experience,” decreasing
    loneliness. Siblings should be invited to camps with the child
    who has the illness, or separate sibling camps/weekends should
    be established (e.g., siblings of children with cancer weekend).

  3. Don’t exclude adolescents because they are “too
    old” or they have been to camp too many times. This study
    demonstrated that adolescents benefit as much, if not more,
    than younger children from being with other similar campers.
    Adolescence is a difficult time for any child, with most teens
    relying on peers for emotional support, including discussing
    issues of dating, body image, and the future. These topics
    are complicated if you have or had a serious illness.

  4. Take these findings to potential donors who say “show
    me the data.” Money is what it all comes down to in the
    end. This study and others like it provide solid evidence that
    camp is a worthwhile investment. With camps competing for limited
    resources, you need to be armed with facts that demonstrate
    why your organization is the best.

  5. Do Research! Although it is difficult to conduct large-scale
    research with a limited number of trained professionals, with
    enough preparation time and staff cooperation, it is possible
    to gather questionnaire data on more than one occasion during
    a camp session. This study demonstrated the ability of conducting
    research during camp, without taking away anything from the
    camp experience. For researchers who are not full-time camp
    staff members, it is important to partner with camp planners
    and leaders to create a team approach, resulting in staff buy-in,
    built in time during the camp schedule, improved data integrity,
    and increased camper participation.

How Do We Explain Social Comparisonsto Others?

In order to evaluate our emotions and abilities, we need to
compare ourselves with other people. There are two types of social
comparisons, both of which can be helpful. Upward comparisons
occur when we compare ourselves with others who are better off.
This gives us information as well as clues about successful coping,
providing hope, motivation, and inspiration. Downward comparisons
are a cognitive coping mechanism where people compare themselves
to less-fortunate others in order to make them feel better about
their own situation (“although my situation is/was bad,
at least it’s not as bad as some other situations”).

However, if the comparison group is dissimilar, negative emotions
can occur. For example, if you are an intermediate level tennis
player, and you compare yourself with Andre Agassi, it may frustrate
you. But if you compare yourself with another intermediate level
tennis player, you may experience the positive benefits described

Children with cancer or other chronic illnesses may only be
able to compare themselves with their “healthy” peers,
which can result in feelings of sadness, frustration, and isolation.
Thus, there is a need to provide children with chronic illnesses
an environment where they do not feel different from their peers.
Camp provides this environment in an intensive and focused way.
Camps allow children to make more realistic comparisons, teaching
children the coping skills necessary for living with cancer or
other illnesses, as well as providing positive role models.


The Voice of the Campers — Research
FindingsThrough Qualitative Data Collection

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.,
Amy Krehbiel, M.S.R.A.;Karla Henderson, Ph.D.,
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and
Dawn Ewing, Morry’s Camp

Camp professionals and researchers inherently believe that “Camp
Gives Kids a World of Good®,” yet the general public,
foundations, board members, and parents want to see proof that
camp is positively influencing campers’ lives. Staff at
Morry’s Camp were interested in the outcome process and
partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
(UNC-CH) to conduct a four-year longitudinal study of one group
of campers.

Morry’s Camp is a year-round youth development organization
that provides each child with a multiyear commitment anchored
in a residential summer camp experience. The children, for whom
these experiences would not otherwise be available, benefit from
a network of support that is focused on social skills, enhanced
self-esteem, positive core values, and a greater sense of personal
responsibility. The research team used a mixed-methods approach
to gather data from the campers and parents to examine the camp
mission and outcomes. The purpose of this study was to investigate
what campers were gaining from the camp experience — from
the camper’s perspective.

Description of the Research Process

The longitudinal study began during the 2002 summer season
and followed thirty “frosh,” fifth grade campers
throughout the school year. The qualitative data were gathered
through summer journals, year-round journal entries, and camper
focus groups. During the summer, the campers answered questions
in their journals, such as: “How has camp made you a better
person?” “What are your future goals?” “What
at camp has helped you with the way you think of yourself?” The
campers continued to answer monthly journal questions throughout
the school year. Examples of the type of questions asked were: “How
has Morry’s Camp made you different from other kids at
school?” “What did you learn at Morry’s Camp
about how to treat others?” “Describe a time when
you were angry and what you did because you were angry.”

The UNC-CH and Morry’s Camp research team conducted three
focus groups in January 2002. Two of the groups consisted of
sixteen fifth-grade campers. The third group consisted of eight “post-grad” campers
(campers who had graduated from the four-year program). The focus
group questions addressed the camp’s outcomes specific
to responsibility, self-esteem, and respect for other people.

Initial Results

Several themes emerged from the data — intrapersonal
growth, interpersonal growth, and uniqueness of the camp experience/environment.

Intrapersonal Growth — Progression and
GrowthWithin the Individual Camper.

  • sense of security
  • independence
  • sense of personal achievement

“(At Camp) I learned how to swim and when I came back
home, we went to New Jersey and my uncle has a pool, so me, my
sister, and brother went swimming. My sister and brother did
not know how to swim so I taught them.” (Example of personal

Interpersonal Growth — Progression and
GrowthWithin the Camper Group, Peer Relations.

  • networks of support
  • social skills

“You meet a lot of different people that’s so fun
and you wanna be around all these different people and different
kinds of personalities and that’s what I like about Morry’s

Camp Experience/Environment — The Components
that Led to the Campers’ Interpersonal and Intrapersonal

  • staff as facilitators and role models
  • camper freedom to choose within the program
  • camper freedom from city life
  • boundaries and clear expectations set at camp
  • peer camper groups and communal living
  • new, safe, and natural environment

“I like camp because you can see animals that you’ve
never seen up close before. And you learn how to swim and learn
about the bugs.”

What Can Camp Directors Learn from This Study?

Directors can use journal entries to gain insights from their
campers. A simple journal entry about campers’ experiences
and perceptions at camp may help directors address issues relevant
to campers’ positive growth and development.

Directors’ can also use focus groups or personal interviews
during the summer program, or throughout the year, to understand
the campers’ perspectives on the camp program and the benefits.

It appeared that the campers’ positive outcomes resulted
from the camp experience/environment (camp culture). Attention
to the camp culture created at camps seems to be an important
context for meeting desired outcomes.

Directors should consider staff training as an opportunity
to focus on facilitation techniques, role modeling, and setting

In this study, the conclusions based on the qualitative data
suggested that camp administrators may want to emphasize the
mission and goals of camp to staff members, set specific boundaries
and expectations for campers, create intentional, outcome-based
activities and special events, and provide some sort of natural
or unique environment for the campers. The camp experience coupled
with opportunities for camper intrapersonal and interpersonal
growth lends support to the fact that camp can build an empowered
camper and can truly do “a world of good.”

Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor
in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University
of Georgia. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for
further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2003 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.