Camp has always centered on the human experience, but as we look to the future, we must focus on expanding the reach, relevance, and impact of camp.
We have identified three core demographic challenges that existing camps must solve in the next ten years to achieve the growth necessary to remain thriving, relevant businesses that serve all school-age children of every race and cultural identity in the United States.
- With the establishment of camp as a highly beneficial developmental and educational experience, the field must continue to build capacity to more inclusively serve the more racially and ethnically diverse demographics of the youth population in the US.
- The field must work to close the gap in representation among potential camps, camp staff, and camp professionals and develop more diverse, inclusive, and culturally responsive programs.
- While communicating the educational and developmental value of camp experiences, the field of camp must focus on creative, diverse, and culturally responsive methods for providing the economic supports that allow for equitable access and affordability.
The American Camp Association (ACA)’s most recent data on staff and camper demographics indicate that 28 percent–30 percent of day and overnight campers are campers of color, while staff of color makes up 29% of staff at day camps and just 21 percent of overnight camp staff. These numbers are steadily climbing, and though we are heartened to see representation growing, we also know that more children and families in the US could benefit from the camp experience. Today, more than half of Gen Zers (individuals born after 1996) are racial or ethnic minorities. When we compare this number to the number of minority campers served by camps in ACA's data, it is clear that we are falling short.
Before the pandemic, more than 15,000 summer camps across the country currently serve 26 million campers each year. Yet after 15-16 months of isolation and traumatic disconnection of children from their peers, camps are seeing increased interest in camp from parents who have not considered camp for the kids before. However, with 76 million children of school age (5–18) in the US, many more children and youth deserve opportunities for beneficial educational and developmental outcomes from camp. To reach more children and ensure a future of sustainability for the camp field, individual camps must address the nation’s changing demographics by becoming more culturally aware and responsive. New families are actively enrolling in camp programs that they learn about through personal experience or word of mouth, and parents are increasingly seeking opportunities for their children to learn from others with different backgrounds and experiences.
We know that organizations reflecting diversity in both ethnicity and gender are 25 percent more likely to be profitable than non-diverse organizations (and brands) competing in the same category. Recruiting staff to meet industry-recognized standards or state and county regulations for diversity, equity, and inclusion offers camps an additional important benchmark. Recruiting and retaining diverse staff who feel seen, heard, and valued will increase interest in working at camp within camps’ hiring pool of 18- to 25-year-olds.
It is not enough to say that we want more diverse staff. We must acknowledge that we need more diverse staff to evolve our programs, practices, training, and policies to reflect the changing demographics of the US’s potential camper population. Including and welcoming camp staff of diverse identities is not sufficient to support belonging in a camp’s culture. True belonging in the camp environment comes from acknowledging our differences and providing the resources, time, and training that staff needs to address the belonging gap in a camp’s culture.
Finally, we must consider the quality of the camp experience for all staff and campers through a lens of social responsibility while addressing mental health challenges and trends in youth. We know through ACA research that camp provides a critical developmental and educational experience. As such, camp can be a powerful tool in addressing the inequities experienced by youth across the country.
The camp industry strives to enrich the lives of all children, youth, and adults through the camp experience. Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion at camp is a growth strategy on two fronts. First, It Is a viable business strategy to ensure the economic sustainability and growth of Individual business models. It also, however, Is a strategy for providing the critical educational and developmental growth that children require to reach their greatest potential. A focus on diversity, equity, and Inclusion will ensure camps’ continued relevance and to meet the changing needs of families, while also being an important tool in addressing historical inequities. While every camp cannot strive to serve every child, every camp will significantly benefit from prioritizing and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their programs.
Through this work, the American Camp Association commits to prioritizing and appropriately resourcing diversity, equity, and inclusion to increase the reach, relevance, and equitable access to camp experiences. ACA will endeavor to routinely evaluate our strategy, efficacy, and advocacy for a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable experience at camp. We acknowledge that as our focus on this work is implemented and evolves, we will identify data, bias, and cultural barriers that will impact and change our strategy for achieving the outcomes identified here.