The question is often asked, “So now that we have this research, how can I tell parents about it?” A fair question. Directors and camp administrators require action plans rather than theories and are tight on both time and resources. There is little opportunity to seek out the latest studies and findings, let alone put them into practice. It’s a fact that even with our electronic devices and specific apps, informative and relevant studies still languish in databases little accessed except by graduate students in search of citations. Even once published, these works can take a decade or more before becoming known. More often than not, it takes a talented and dedicated journalist like Richard Louv (2006) to cleverly bundle an expanse of knowledge and capture the public imagination.
How Parents Feel about Camp
After six years, the results are in for the third and final phase of the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project (Glover et al., 2013), which focuses on Parent’s Perceptions of Changes in Children since Returning Home from Camp. This research confirms what camp directors have long known — that camp can often change a kid’s attitudes in a variety of posi-tive ways at home, at school, and in the community. Given the commonality of camps in Canada and the United States, it’s not surprising that the Canadian study corroborates the findings of similar U.S. studies that surveyed the parents of campers (Dworken, 2001; Garst & Bruce, 2003; Henderson et al., 2007; Michalski et al., 2003).
Specifically, the Canadian study overall found that summer camps of at least a week’s duration provided an “immersive experience” that promoted development in five key outcome areas:
- social integration and citizenship
- environmental awareness
- attitudes toward physical activity
- emotional intelligence
- self-confidence and personal development
Based on these five outcome areas, a parent survey was completed two to four months after their kids returned home from camp. Demographic information was also collected on household income and family structure, as well as age, gender, language, cultural background, province of residence, previous camp experience, type of camp, and length of stay.
Using a 6-point Likert scale (1 = very strongly disagree, 6 = very strongly agree), 1,405 parents rated statements about their children such as: Has stayed in touch with camp friends; Feels a sense of belong-ing to the camp’s broader community; Demonstrates more interest in outdoor activities; Is more likely to share emo-tions; Is more sensitive to the feelings of others; Is able to do more things on his or her own; Expresses more interest in trying new things; Is better able to deal with challenges; etc. Parents also had the option for personal comments.
Overall, parents reported that positive changes in attitudes and behaviors continued or were maintained after camp. This finding supports previous summer camp research that found that learning transfer to daily life contexts can be traced back to optimal experiences that took place within the physical and social settings of the summer camp (Fine, 2005; Henderson et al., 2007).
Parents can be one of our best barometers for measuring the success or failure of camp programming, staffing, and associated experiences for our campers. Personally, I’ve found that any time adults gather for social or professional get-togethers, the conversation generally turns to the subject of their children. It is only natural for parents to speak about what’s been going on in school and activities such as music, dance, sports — and quite often, stories about summer camp. Even if they themselves had never attended camp, there always seems to be a family member, friend, or colleague who did and had tales to tell of the great times, the hard times, and the lessons learned.
This is because many parents inherently recognize that camps are not simply places for summer fun but are also educative places that have a capacity to promote positive personal, social, and physical development. Camp allows for meaningful experiences apart from the home and school environment and can greatly assist young people in developing self-worth, interpersonal skills, and an increased level of emotional intelligence (EQ) that will serve them well over the course of their lives (Glover et al., 2011).
The Research Findings
- Older campers seemed to experience significantly greater levels of change in the five key outcome areas but particularly in the area of social integration and citizenship.
- Campers who stay at camp for an extended period of time experience greater changes in the five key outcome areas.
- Female campers tend to experience greater levels of social integration and citizenship than boys.
- Returning campers overall experience greater positive changes in attitude and behavior.
Strategies for the Effective Use of Research
Strategy #1: Acculturation
The research shows that participation in summer camp encourages and supports important developmental outcomes in young people. There are many children from social and/or cultural backgrounds that are unfamiliar with the tradition of camp or the benefits. These families in your region could be identified and informed through specific outreach.
Ways to do this? Investigate the prevalence in your area of social or cultural clubs or organizations. These are often expat communities and are excellent sources for outreach to families. Sometimes these families have no knowledge or understanding of children’s camps. Often they come from countries that have their own history of summer youth programs but do not know how to access similar programs for their kids here.
It is very common for these cultural clubs to award scholarships to community youth. Consider offering a camp scholar-ship supported by copies of research findings. The research will lend considerable credibility to your program and could open the doors to this community’s youth becoming regular attendees.
Browse to see if they have any established blogs or forums that you might join or to which you might contribute. Look at establishing a contact with an ethnic publication or daily newspaper. An example from Ontario, Canada, is a consortium of camps that have begun working as a team in order to approach and address a linguistic community through the media power of a bilingual daily newspaper with offices in several countries, including Canada and the United States. A series of ads highlights camp learning as a component of a comprehensive and successful education. It outreaches to a new and growing linguist community within Ontario that esteems educational studies and research.
Strategy #2: Female Gender Modeling
Though societal gender expectations might encourage girls to demonstrate more caring behavior through greater interpersonal skills, camp directors and programming staff may wish to consider ways to foster greater social integration/ citizenship at camp among boys. Camps operating coed programs may want to think about fully integrating male and female campers in daily activities if they do not already do so. Consider this integration at mealtimes as well. Although this may at first be met with objections based on social convention or logistics, the idea is not a radical one.
Camp should be a fun, safe, and educational environment that is reflective of everyday life. According to the survey “Perceptions and Attitudes of Students Toward Academic and Social Experiences in Canadian High Schools” (The Strategic Counsel, 2011), girls and boys at coed schools find it easier to make friends with the opposite sex and are more comfortable voicing opinions in their presence.
Integration builds mutual respect be-tween genders while learning the social skills that relate to working and communicating in mixed peer groups successfully. It is crucial that boys and girls are exposed to different role models, leadership styles, opinions, and ideas — segregation from an entire sex can change their references significantly. In the case of all-boy or all-girl camps, the introduction of more counseling and activity staff of the opposite sex is an option worth exploring.
Strategy #3: Cyber Connections
Have a strong research presence on your camp Web site. Both the American Camp Association (ACA) and the Canadian Camping Association (CCA) Web sites have comprehensive research sections. Of particular interest to individual camps are the briefing papers at www.ACAcamps.org/  research/care-briefing-papers. The briefing papers, along with CARE Packages (condensed research projects that focus on direct applications for the camp environment), allow camp directors and administrators to access current research findings in a user-friendly format. These two-page articles, each with bibliography, are easy to read and to the point. Not only are they beneficial for staff training and program improvement, they can also be exception-ally useful for promotional purposes for your camp.
Strategy #4: Face to Face
Despite electronic and social media, print is not dead (it’s simply morphed into a variety of distinct forms) and face-to-face exchange is still the most prolific (and satisfying) form of social interaction. Keller and Fay (2012) found that 75 percent of conversations in the U.S. (and even more in other countries) still happen face to face with less than 10 percent taking place through the Internet. Although Facebook has reduced e-mail “conversations,” there has been no similar decline in face-to-face interaction. So, word of mouth still rules. Tell your campers’ parents and prospective parents about the research findings.
Strategy #5: The Printed Word
How about print? Recently, we were at a friend’s home for dinner. Our conversation was, as usual, both lively and informative. At one point the conversation turned to their children and current trends in the youth job market. Our host then presented us with a thought-provoking article on the subject that she had printed off the Internet. As exampled in Strategy #4, face-to-face conversations tend to be more positive, credible, and about truly sharing real-life experiences. In this instance, our host backed up her word-of-mouth interaction with relevant research. She also kept several copies on hand as it was her habit to regularly pass on printed information to support her personal opinions circulated by word of mouth. Strategy #6: Social Media Prospective camper families have changed dramatically over the past decade. We live in a fast-paced, constantly connected, and culturally diverse society that is very favorable for the circulation and sharing of information. Parents, extended family, and friends readily use Facebook or Twitter to share personal events and the activities of their kids. Cyber traffic between parents is the new word of mouth, and what better place to market your camp to this “mass” community than to circulate current research findings on the positive and practical benefits of camp experiences.
Make bullet points from the variety of studies available on both ACA’s and CCA’s Web sites and post to Twitter or to your Facebook page.
- Research Alert! “Camp develops emotional intelligence!”
- Research Alert! “Camp promotes environmentally friendly lifestyles!”
- Research Alert! “Children enjoy being physically active at camp!”
- Research Alert! “Kids learn self-confidence through camp!”
Remember to also link “Research Alerts” to your camp’s Web site.
Research Is Vital to Growth
Phase three of the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project provides additional evidence to an ever-growing body of research showing that positive development that occurs at camp results in behavioral changes at home, school, and in community contexts. In short, the camp experience transfers to everyday life. The research data is parent generated and not the product of a marketing or ad campaign. This type of research is vital to the growth and livelihood of our business because we deal with parents and their kids. It’s also vital to all business in an era of seamless information exchange. The strategies discussed cover both tried-and-true as well as new modes of communication and dissemination of information. Be proactive with the research that is now readily available to the camp industry. Use it to promote your camp!
Some Research-Inspired Commentary
The current buzz in secondary schools, higher education, and the workplace is that teamwork leads to success. The idea is that if a group collectively tackles a problem, the results will outstrip what could be achieved by an individual alone.
Yet, I always remember the first-time camper in the dining hall who didn’t want to put out plates and cutlery when it was his cabin’s turn. He questioned his friends, “Did you ever have to set your own table when you went to a restaurant?” “No,” they replied, thoughtfully. “See, I told you camp sucks!” But by the end of camp, that camper had learned firsthand the privilege it was to be of service and the value of do-ing things as a team.
You see, although we promote the benefits of group efforts in our institutions, the paradox is that teamwork is not an innate feature of urban society. We are now only beginning to once again partake in com-munity activities built upon notions of give-and-take and shared responsibility. While we have adopted the team formula for our schools and workplaces, our team members still tend to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals.
Consequently, people do not always work well together. Many team members will not do their share, simply do nothing, or in the worst case scenario, deliberately try to undermine the group itself. The challenge to camp directors and staff becomes creating an environment where “individuals” actually want to work together. And they excel at this challenge.
Traditionally, children went to camp for a month or the entire summer. After pouring over brochures, getting references, or choosing where mom or dad had gone, a camp was selected. Kids would return summer after summer. This often led to a CIT position and eventually a job as a counselor. The lifelong friendships forged from such an experience, the sense of community, and the feelings of belonging are seldom disputed.
However, many families are now unfamiliar with a summer camp culture. Additionally, kids now have a wide array of summer options from which to choose. Summer camp is no longer the only game in town, and many families have adopted a buffet-style approach to the broad array of summertime options. As a result, one-week programs have become increasing popular. Shorter program options have generally been offered as a try-out experience for very young or first-time campers. This was comfortable for kids who had never been away from home and also for their parents. But it was considered a bridge to a longer program, the traditional wisdom being that camp was a summertime immersion, something that gave every-one in the family a break and a time of growth for kids away from home life.
Research has confirmed this traditional wisdom, yet factors such as the downturn in the economy made shorter stays a practical necessity. However, as the economy bounces back, I’ve noted an apparent preference for what I call “sound bite” events (this being a rapid succession of brief, “totally awesome” assorted experiences), which are governing parents decisions for their kids. Why just have one flavor when you can have three or four? This is really opting for the trailer and taking a pass on the feature presentation.
Do parents understand that a child going to camp needs time to settle in? The first few days are exciting, but they can also be uncomfortable, and the feeling of “I want to go home” is not uncommon. It is a typical human reaction to new surroundings and the interruption of familiar routines. So if parents have chosen a one-week program because of perceived homesickness issues, I suggest this may not give their child enough time to “chill” and have a successful time.
Now multiply this pattern for each and every change in a kid’s summertime agenda. The camper will have several first days to deal with, and several more settling-in periods, and more importantly, multiple last days of saying goodbye to new friends. Considered from this perspective, stressors associated with “sound bites” account for several unfulfilling or unproductive days — and these lost days become significant when the timeline is already short.
Can the appropriate time be allocated in order to allow for a quality camp experience? Appreciate that it is best if length of stay is not compromised by demanding schedules. Demanding schedules are for the most part linked to adult agendas and are a major source of anxiety and stress within the home. Time at summer camp is one of the few options that allow children to be childlike in a world removed from adult concerns and hectic schedules. Summer camps stand as one of the last bastions of community where young people can move through their days at a walking pace. This in itself is something that should be valued and savored. Using research is one way we can effectively get this information out to potential camper parents.
Dworken, B.S. (2001). Research reveals the assets of camp: Parents and campers give their opinions. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/participant/cm/019research 
Fine, S.M. (2005). Contextual learning with the residential outdoor experience: A case study of a summer camp community in Ontario. Retrieved from http://ccamping.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Fine_Stephen_2005_Contextual_Learning_within_the_Resident.pdf 
Garst, B.A., & Bruce, F.A. (2003). Identifying 4-H camping outcomes using a standardized evaluation process across multiple 4-H educational centers. Journal of Extension,41(3).
Glover, et al. (2011). Canadian summer camp research project, phase 1 & 2. Retrieved from http://ccamping.org/resources/research-papers/ 
Glover, et al. (2013). Canadian summer camp research project, phase 3, parent’s perceptions of changes in children since returning home from camp. Retrieved from http://ccamping.org/resources/research-papers/ 
Henderson, K. et al. (2007). Summer camp experiences: Parental perceptions of youth development outcomes. Journal of Family Issues, 28; 987–1007. Retrieved from http://jfi.sagepub.com/content/28/8/987.abstract 
Keller & Fay. (2012). Facebook can’t replace face- to-face conversation. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2012-04-29/facebook-face-to-face/54629816/1 
Louv, R. (2006). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books.
Michalski, J.H. et al. (2003). A multimethod impact evaluation of a therapeutic summer camp program. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20, 53-76.
The Strategic Counsel. (2011). Perceptions and attitudes of students toward academic and social experiences in Canadian High Schools. Retrieved from www.ridleycollege.com/ftpimages/180/download/download_group4184_id171639.pdf 
Stephen Fine, PhD, is a camp researcher, owner/director of The Hollows Camp, Ontario, Canada, and chair of the nation research committee for the Canadian Camping Association.
Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.