Fostering Quality Athletic Programs in Camps to Promote Lifetime Physical Activity

by Prithwi Raj Subramaniam, Ph.D.

For most of us, summer brings warm feelings and we readily associate summer with the camp experience. Camps have had a long tradition in this country providing valuable life skills and motor skills to our youth. The experiences, knowledge, skills, and attitudes youth gain in camps function to supplement the influences of home and school (Guggenheimer, Deming, Gucker, Sinn, & Welch 1945). As our nation battles with an increasing rise in obesity among our children, summer camps may have to take on other roles as well. Fifteen percent (almost nine million) of children and teens aged six to nineteen years are overweight according to the 1999-2000 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The roles summer camps play in our children's growth, education, and development have to be aligned with current health issues facing our nation. How can summer camps offer a remedy to this serious public health concern? The answer lies in the provision of a quality athletic program that caters to the needs of all campers physically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically.

A Quality Athletic Program

The mission statement of the American Camp Association (ACA) is enriching the lives of children, youth, and adults through the camp experience. The camp experience is a combination of a variety of programs provided by camps to help campers grow and develop as individuals. Camps should strive to make every program that is offered to campers an enriching experience. According to ACA's values statement, the camp experience should promote the development of "self-esteem, character, courage, responsibility, resourcefulness, and cooperation" — which are important attributes in every camper's growth and education. Camp administrators should use ACA's mission and values statements as a guide in designing quality athletic programs for campers. We need to understand that not all camp experiences can enrich the lives of our children. In order to enrich the lives of our children through the camp experience, camp administrators need to pay close attention to the types of activities offered in the athletic program — and the learning climate created in teaching these activities.

Quality athletic programs are developmentally appropriate and should meet the developmental needs of all campers. Campers should be provided plenty of appropriate practice opportunities to practice the skill being taught. An athletic program that offers kickball does not ordinarily provide ample practice opportunities for campers to be skillful. In a game of kickball, children average fewer than two chances to throw, kick, and catch during an entire game — and girls have fewer chances than boys (Wilson 1976).

In addition to the provision for appropriate practice trials, campers also need to experience success regardless of skill level. This is particularly important with campers who are low skilled. When these youth experience success, they are more likely to continue working to improve versus when they continually fail (Graham, Holt/Hale, & Parker 2004). If we want our campers to engage in regular physical activity and derive the health-related benefits of physical activity, we need to think beyond kickball in our athletic programs. Quality athletic programs also provide avenues for cognitive, emotional, and social development in our campers.

The activities we offer in our athletic programs can have a profound impact on the emotional development of our children (Guggenheimer, et al. 1945). Activities that are developmentally inappropriate could lower self-esteem, reduce confidence, and disrupt sound emotional growth. Dodgeball/bombardment is a popular activity in most summer camps. This activity is considered developmentally inappropriate (Graham et al. 2004; NASPE 2004; Williams 1992) by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education because it is an elimination game and uses humans as targets. Campers who are eliminated from the game are either low skilled or bigger targets, and these are the very individuals who need to practice and exercise the most given the health crisis we are facing as a nation. Dodgeball/bombardment could be one of the contributing factors to the reason why low skilled campers get turned off to future physical activity. In addition, this activity does not help children develop positive values as it promotes aggression and mob mentality. Moreover, there is too much potential for injury, both mental and physical. Dodgeball is a lawsuit waiting to happen (Vail 2001).

The Learning Climate

Grineski, S. (1996). Cooperative learning in physical education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). San Clemente, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning.
Midura, D. W., & Glover, D. R. (1995). More team building challenges. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Putnam, J. W. (1998). Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Brookes.
Slavin, R.E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, practice, research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

The learning climate we create in teaching activities also can play a significant role in impacting the cognitive, emotional, and social development of our campers. Motivational research informs us that the type of motivational climate one adopts and implements may enhance or hinder learning. There are two types of motivational climates: (1) mastery motivation climate; and (2) performance motivation climate. Central to the mastery motivation climate is that effort will lead to success regardless of skill level. On the other hand, performance motivation climate is based on the individual's ability and sense of self-worth (Biddle, Wang, Chatzisarantis, & Spray 2003; Valentini, Rudisill, & Goodway 1999).

Programs that are competitive in nature (e.g., color wars) subscribe to the performance motivation climate and only high-skilled children succeed in this environment. Guggenheimer et al. (1945) warned us that if competition is over emphasized in camp programs, it may "generate a false drive that leads to anxiety, a sense of failure and the division of attention between the apparent pursuit and the artificial reward" (p.2). Low-skilled children also are made to feel like misfits in such a climate because they do not possess the ability to succeed. Low-skilled children who experience failure consistently in such an environment tend to have self-doubts about their own ability and self-confidence.

A mastery motivation climate offers both high-skilled and low-skilled individuals the opportunity to succeed at their own level. In order to foster a mastery motivation climate, athletic programs should provide tasks or activities that match children's abilities and skill level. In addition, both high-skilled and low-skilled children have been reported to enjoy learning in a mastery motivation climate (Biddle et al. 2003).

Camps Play a Pivotal Role

Camps can play a pivotal role in combating the growing obesity epidemic among our youth. Taking on this public health issue is a major service camps can provide to their communities. It is through the provision of quality athletic programs that this vision may come to light. Athletic programs that provide developmentally appropriate activities and learning opportunities to all children regardless of skill level are contributing to the ultimate goals of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development of the child. In order to foster positive values and cooperation among campers, athletic programs need to include more cooperative activities and eliminate developmentally inappropriate activities. Athletic programs in camps also "should make the learning process and the development of athletic prowess subordinate to sound emotional growth . . ." (Guggenheimer, et al. 1945, p.3). Incorporating a mastery motivation climate into athletic programs can enrich the lives of children and help develop self-esteem and self-confidence. It is only through the provision of a quality athletic program that the overall values and mission of the ACA can be accomplished. Such a program will provide campers with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be physically active individuals long after they leave camp. Athletic programs that strive to increase the physical activity levels of all campers are contributing positively to engaging our campers in a lifetime of physical activity. In order to achieve this vision, camp administrators need to "think out of the box."

Ten Things You Can Do Today to Increase Quality Athletic Programming at Camp

  • Ensure that quality athletic programs are developmentally appropriate, meeting the developmental needs of all campers.
  • Provide plenty of appropriate practice opportunities to practice the skill being taught.
  • Keep in mind that campers need to experience success regardless of skill level.
  • Create a positive learning climate when teaching activities.
  • Foster a mastery motivation climate where athletic programs provide tasks or activities that match children’s abilities and skill level.
  • Emphasize positive values and cooperation among campers by offering athletic programs that include more cooperative activities.
  • Make the learning process and the development of athletic prowess subordinate to sound emotional growth.
  • Strive to appropriately increase the physical activity levels for all campers. Remember, camps can play a pivotal role in combating the growing obesity epidemic among our youth.
  • Understand that developmentally inappropriate activities could lower self-esteem, reduce confidence, and disrupt sound emotional growth. Adjust your athletic programs accordingly.
  • Positively engage campers of all abilities in your camp’s athletic programming to impart a comfort level with athletic activity that will remain with campers throughout their lives.
Biddle, S.J.H., Wang, C.K.J., Chatzisarantis, N.L.D., & Spray, C.M. (2003). Motivation for physical activity in young people: Entity and incremental beliefs about athletic ability. Journal of Sport Sciences, 21, 973-989.
Graham, G., Holt/Hale, S.A., & Parker, M. (2004). Children moving: A reflective approach to teaching physical education (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Guggenheimer, F.L., Deming, E., Gucker, C., Sinn, B.A., & Welch, E. (1945). The place of organized camp in the field of education. Chicago, IL: American Camping Association.
National Association for Sport and Physical Education (Fall 2004). Position on dodgeball in physical education. NASPE News, 67, 4.
Vail, K. (August 2001). The demise of dodgeball. American School Board Journal, 22-25.
Valentini, N.C., Rudisill, M.E., & Goodway, J.D. (1999). Incorporating a mastery climate into physical education: It's developmentally appropriate! Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 70, 28-32.
Williams, N.F. (1992). The physical education Hall of Shame. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 63, 57-60.
Wilson, N. (1976). The frequency and patterns of selected motor skills by third and fourth grade girls and boys in the game of kickball. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Georgia, Athens.
Prithwi Raj Subramaniam, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York 14850. He worked as a program director for a residential camp in Maine last summer.

Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.