Did you know that between 2001 and 2004, the American Camp Association® (ACA) conducted national research with over 5,000 families from eighty ACA-accredited camps to see if we could “prove” what we in the camp field all know to be true: Camp gives kids a world of good?
Indeed, parents responded that their children grew significantly in all these areas of human development: self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, social comfort, peer relationships, adventure and exploration, values, and decision making. The value of a camp experience, we thus were able to declare, was no longer purely subjective, but measurable and indisputable! Camp, we then asserted, was a unique educational institution — a “classroom without walls” that provided the yang to school’s yin. Camp is the true north of a young person’s moral compass and social character. In retrospect, I posit, we might have been preaching to the choir!
It occurs to me, since there was not a grassroots, nationwide chorus of “ah has,” that the sway of this study might have been diluted in the jargon of “research-ese”: ten constructs, youth development outcomes, camper growth index, and so on. I’ve been pondering this hypothesis since the time we “celebrated” the survey’s results. I wondered why, even though we shouted from the rooftops and stood on soapboxes, passionately extolling the singular importance of camp as a vital component of a child’s education, the noncamp people — those who have never had or whose children never had a camp experience — didn’t embrace the news as being crucial to their child’s success and happiness.
Almost a decade later, the SeriousFun Children’s Network (formerly Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, founded by Paul Newman), also confident about the unparalleled value of a camp experience for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, launched their own research project. Those results, culled during the summer of 2012 from more than 250 families in twelve SeriousFun camps around the world, corroborated ACA’s findings, and added yet another reinforcing layer to the benefit of camp — SeriousFun camps enabled these children to make friendships and form social connections:
There’s the “ah ha” I was waiting for! I resolved it was time to tell the story again!
So, to my colleagues in the field of camp who I know will be just as excited as I am to have yet another science-based measurement tool for what we know to be true — that “Camp Gives Kids a World of Good” — sit back and take pleasure in these facts I now present to you about the world of good YOU deliver!
Children with serious illness are faced with myriad physical and social challenges. Yet the Yale Child Study Center recently found that those who attend a SeriousFun camp showed improved confidence, higher self-esteem, a greater sense of independence, and an increased interest in social activities. The research also revealed that children’s stress related to their illness decreased as a result of the camp experience.
“The study confirms what we’ve known anecdotally about the positive impact of camp,” explained Ruth Johnson, CEO of Roundup River Ranch, a SeriousFun camp in Colorado. No revelation for any of us who have witnessed, time and again, the attributes that camp develops and amplifies: better social skills, higher emotional intelligence, heightened self-discipline, greater creativity, more genuine caring, bet ter problem solving, and quintessential happiness.
It’s not surprising that Paul Newman chose camp in order to fulfill his mission “to create opportunities for children and their families to reach beyond serious illness and discover joy, confidence, and a new world of possibilities.” While not a camp professional at the time, he knew intuitively that camp imparted the “art,” or soft skills, to balance the “science” part of education that takes place in a classroom. It’s really pretty simple — and incredibly powerful: Camp offers both the backdrop and the stage for life-changing experiences!
Need the stats to back up that statement? Here they are — from two child-centered, highly respected research teams (Philliber Research on behalf of the American Camp Association and the Yale Child Study Center on behalf of the SeriousFun Children’s Network; see sidebar at the bottom of this page). Exceptionally validating are the similarities in findings in all measured areas, not only those around friendship. In a poignant remark, one SeriousFun camper said, “I feel like I got inside a wonderful fairytale.” That’s the impression when experientially based life skills and values are realized to heighten positive self-identity: self-esteem, confidence, independence.
One notable disparity, ensuing from the different population samples, actually highlights the significance of a camp experience by reporting that typical children said, “Camp helped me get to know others who were different,” while children dealing with serious illness remarked, “Camp helped me get to know others who were like me!” The common denominator, though, is that both groups of children honed their coping strategies, whether basic problem-solving techniques or complex illness-related stress. All of them, regardless of circumstance, got “to know others.”
Indisputable Outcomes of the Camp Experience (and Reason to Celebrate!)
- Fun — Adventure and exploration
- Strong values and character-building
- Connectedness with nature
- Positive risk-taking
- Increased physical activity
- Opportunities for play and imagination
- Problem solving, decision making, and resilience
- Feeling of belonging
Play, after all, is the work of childhood! Add to that foundation the sense of community, which is loosely defined as people who share the same stories, and you get the resounding essence of the camp experience: it “fosters resilience-promoting skills,” points out Dr. Linda Mayes, professor and coprincipal investigator of the Yale Child Study Center.
“Young people need environments that offer positive peer and adult relationships, guidance, structure, high expectations, and opportunities to try new things,” explains Nicole Yohalem, the director of Learning and Research at the Forum for Youth Investment, which was instrumental in the ACA study (ACA, 2004).
The results about the value of a camp experience are definitive:
- Children become more confident and build increased self-esteem
- Children develop more social skills that help them make new friends
- Children grow more independent and show more leadership and decision-making qualities
- Children become more adventurous and willing to try new things
- Children gain mastery in core emotional areas such as resilience and self-regulation
In fact, the influence on camper resilience was quantifiable and significant, according to the Yale study. After camp:
- There was a decrease in the frequency of psycho-social problems, such as at tentiveness, feel ing sad, and relationship-building
- There was an increase in friendship satisfaction
- Camper-related happiness about health and ability to do things was higher
A third study, initiated by the Foundation for Jewish Camps (FJC) by Laszlo Strategies, was focused on campers with special needs who were attending Jewish overnight camps, with the intention of raising the bar of excellence by measuring success. While this was a more targeted analysis, sampling 124 camps and more than 250 parents, 140 campers, and 170 staff, some of the results corroborate the other positive findings in terms of the value of a camp experience. Ninety-three percent of parents were more than satisfied with their child’s experience (FJC, 2013).
As the folks at SeriousFun tell us, “Although campers may only recognize the fun and adventure, every activity is intentional and provides therapeutic benefits to the children’s health, their quality of life, and their future” (2013a).
For children (and their families) coping with chronic or life-threatening illness, or in the case of FJC with other special needs, the importance of a camp experience is, if anything, intensified. Paul Newman’s vision was that, “while the heart of our camps is medically based,” all children, despite the “bad luck” of having a serious illness, could “kick back” and have fun — and benefit from the supports and opportunities of the camp experience (2008).
Theory of Change
The SeriousFun Global Partnership Program, recognizing with Paul’s lead that a life-threatening condition can be different from country to country, from culture to culture, created a template, which, fittingly, underscores the umbrella statement that the camp experience enriches lives and changes the world. The concept is called “Theory of Change.”
Here’s how it goes:
We assume that more and more children are surviving previously fatal diseases; still, the effects of disease and necessary treatments often result in disrupt ion of normal childhood development, particularly in the area of time away from peers. Social relatedness or connection, however, is a basic human need, promoting better health outcomes, signaling a positive outlook for the future, and supporting resilience. If we take those children who are isolated or perhaps even stigmatized and who lack social skills and a belief in themselves, and create an intentional community that engages them in fun activities that promote social connectedness and a sense of possibility, they will learn from this “serious fun” new social skills in an environment of acceptance and support, surrounded by caring, compassionate, adult role models. The expectation, then, is that they will exhibit behaviors that connect them to others in similar circumstances and that they will eventually become positive about their future, resilient, socially related, and successful (SeriousFun Global Partnership Program, 2013).
That Theory of Change, I submit, is the same for every child, and drives our passion to ensure that every camper has the best camp experience possible — because that experience is the underpinning of pivotal developmental skills.
The researchers at SeriousFun remark, “Since 2010, the Yale School of Medicine has surveyed and interviewed hundreds of SeriousFun campers and their parents. Results of the inquiry show that children have increased confidence, self-esteem, maturity, independence, and interest in social activities. In addition, nearly all campers reported making friends, many of which lasted beyond the camp experience. The data also suggests that resilience indicators, such as possessing positive coping strategies . . . showed significant improvement following camp” (2013b).
Indeed, these results, combined, unequivocal ly provide the scientific evidence we have sought for years and have known forever: Camp is so much more than “just plain fun!” Let us rejoice — camp has a profound, lifelong, positive impact on all children that is not found anywhere else in the educational quiver of a growing child. Camp is the vessel that holds the fun, which is the transportation to success and happiness.
Findings — American Camp Association, 2004 (first of its
Organizations Mentioned in This Article
ACA. (2004). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/research/enhance/directions 
FJC. (2013). Jewish camp for children with disabilities and special needs. Retrieved from www.jewishcamp.org/sites/default/files/u4/Key%20Findings%20%20Jewish%20Camp%20Survey%20on%20Disabilities.pdf 
Newman, P. (2008). The Hole in the Wall Camps: My thoughts and aspirations for the future (revised 2013). Internal document.
SeriousFun Global Partnership Program. (2013). Theory of change. Internal document.
SeriousFun Children’s Network. (2013a). Let’s talk about fun. Retrieved from www.seriousfunnetwork.org/about-us/the-beginning 
SeriousFun Children’s Network. (2013b). Power in numbers. Retrieved from www.seriousfunnetwork.org/serious-impact 
SeriousFun Children’s Network. (2013c). What our brainy friends at Yale say. Retrieved from www.seriousfunnetwork.org/seriousimpact/research 
Marla Coleman is a spokesperson and past president of ACA (the outcomes study was conducted during her term). She is a founding director of Coleman Country Day Camp on Long Island. She serves on the board of Roundup River Ranch in Colorado, where she also volunteers as a counselor.
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Originally published in the March/April 2014 Camping Magazine.