In the first article of this four-part series, we discussed summer camp as a developmentally enriching experience, the opportunity gap, and how we conceptualize the factors that impact participation in summer camp programs, or what we call “constraints.” We also introduced a model that helps us understand how families experience constraints when accessing summer camp programs. Part II dives deeper into what impacts access to summer camp: constraints, how constraints are shaped by culture, what we found about constraints in the summer camp context through our research, and what this means for camp professionals.

Throughout this series, we will be using a range of terminology to describe what we’ve learned. The following lexicon defines and clarifies what we mean when we use these unique terms. 


Constraints: All the factors that impact participation in summer camps, including preventing participation, reducing frequency, intensity, or duration of participation, or reducing the quality of experience or satisfaction gained from participation in summer camp. Constraints are categorized in three ways: psychological, social, and structural — and all are shaped by culture. 

Culture: The distinctive customs, values, beliefs, knowledge, art, and language of a society or community. These values and concepts are passed from generation to generation, and they are the basis for everyday behaviors and practices (APA, 2021).

Negotiate: Traditionally meaning “to find a way over or through (an obstacle or difficult path),” in current constraint literature, when one works their way through or around a constraint, they have “negotiated” it. Put another way, they may have overcome an obstacle or navigated some sort of barrier to access.

Obstacles: Another word for “constraints.” Examples include poverty, distance between home and camp, transportation, childcare for younger siblings, and time.

Socioeconomic Status (SES): The social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation, and frequently reveals inequities in access to resources and issues related to privilege, power, and control (APA, 2021).

Constraints and Culture

One of the major critiques of existing research on constraints to leisure activities is that it isn’t inclusive of social and cultural factors outside of the dominant (Henderson et al., 1988). While the original researchers believed that culture “shapes” all constraint categories (Godbey et al., 2010), the foundational leisure constraint research was conducted three decades ago and is rooted in normative cultural and value systems. As we began our own research on constraints to summer camp, we adopted the notion that culture shapes all constraint experiences, and thus intentionally created space for the constraints diverse families might experience related to culture. 

Constraints to Summer Camp

After identifying the existence of opportunity gaps to summer camp programs, we wanted to know more about the specific factors that impact access to these programs. So, in a pilot study conducted in the fall of 2019, we asked parents whose children had previously attended summer camp (total sample size was 343) to describe the top three challenges they consider when sending their children to camp. We learned that parents experience each type of constraint (psychological, social, and structural) when accessing summer camp programs. See the table for the emerging themes from our pilot study. 

Constraint % Reported
Intrapersonal  5.1
Separation 96
Values  4
Interpersonal 34.5
Readiness  27.1
Social  23.2
Interest  14.3
Supervision  11.9
Fit  7.7
Health  7.7
Structural  60.4
Cost  39
Schedule  30.2
Location  9.8
Type of Program 7.8
Transportation 6.5
Other Logistics 5.6

Note: From the 343 respondents, constraints reported less than 4 percent of the time were excluded from this table. 

The pilot study helped us understand the obstacles that parents face when accessing summer camp and supported the formation of what would become the Summer Camp Constraint Negotiation Model (Dickerson & Wycoff, 2021). 

Furthermore, findings from the pilot study helped shape the survey questions and interview protocols of our first study. In the spring of 2020, we recruited participants from the American Camp Association’s (ACA’s) ongoing national Youth Impact Study. Data was collected from parent/child dyads. Children were aged 11–13 (M=11.5) at the time of data collection. Eighty percent of families where white; 47 percent reported a yearly household income of more than $150,000, and 14 percent reported less than a $50,000 income. Results from the first study confirmed that both parents and children experience constraints when accessing summer camp programs. Social constraints, usually relating to their children fitting in socially at camp concerned parents most. Psychological constraints, such as their interest, concerned children most.

The findings from this first study uncovered an exciting new line of research into constraints to summer camp. Eager to dig deeper into some of our lingering questions, in winter of 2020, we launched a study utilizing a Qualtrics Online Panel Survey, which allows researchers to target populations of respondents based on demographic information such as race, location, age, gender, or ethnicity (Qualtrics, 2020). In particular, noting that the initial study was limited to predominantly white affluent families who had previously accessed summer camp, and that the opportunity gap more often affects youth of color and youth coming from low-income households, we wanted to learn more about how diverse families perceived and experienced constraints to accessing summer camp. In the winter panel study, participants were parents of children aged 7–14 years old, and were separated into two subsamples, or groups: 506 camp “users”, and 513 camp “non-users.” Additionally, both subsamples in this study were census matched based on median income.

What we found was both simple and complex. On one hand, the most salient constraints parents identified when attempting to access summer camp remained relatively consistent regardless of group affiliation (i.e., racial/ethnic identification, socioeconomic status, previous camp attendance). Specifically, infectious diseases, supervision, cost, and adequate medical care were consistently reported by parents as their most concerning constraints. Where it gets more complex is in the differential rankings of these top constraints among different racial and ethnic groups, household income groups, and user-status groups. This points to subtle nuances regarding experiences and perceptions of constraints that necessitate further consideration.

Worth mentioning here is the fact that our results pertaining to household income differed between studies. That is, while results from the spring 2020 Youth Impact Study generally indicated that lower-income families experienced higher levels of concern across most constraints, results from the winter 2020 Panel Sample Study suggested that higher-income families were generally more concerned about sending their children to camp. Even controlling for user status in the panel sample, focusing only on parents who had previously sent their children to several summers of camp, families with higher household incomes still reported higher levels of concern than families with lower household incomes across most constraints.

So how do we make sense of these discrepant findings? Most likely, it is a function of the samples. Recall that the first study was comprised of predominantly white affluent families who were likely already enthusiastic about summer camp having already attended camp programs in the past. Thus, findings were not particularly generalizable. On the other hand, the panel study was census matched, which by nature of having to meet certain demographic quotas within the sample, may have introduced some confounding variables. In both instances, the unique samples resulted in unique challenges, making comparisons across studies all the more difficult. Put another way, it may simply be that the samples were different, so the results do not align. The big takeaway here is that socioeconomic status obviously has an effect on parental concerns regarding sending a child to summer camp, but these studies haven’t yet been able to fully untangle the particulars of that effect.

Implications for Practitioners 

Perhaps most importantly, what does this mean for camp professionals? First and foremost, we want to remind you that just because a family is facing a constraint to accessing summer camp doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t attend. Constraints can be negotiated, resulting in modified, partial, and/or full participation! 

That being said, some constraints may be more difficult to negotiate for certain families, and certain families may face more constraints than others. This is important for practitioners to keep in mind for two key reasons. First, recall that by highlighting the numerous obstacles children face over the course of their development, the opportunity gap shifts the responsibility from youth and families to more accurately place it on present systems of inequity (Mooney, 2018). So it is unreasonable to expect youth and families to negotiate constraints on their own, and the camp industry will have to extend some support to truly increase access to summer camp for all youth. We will circle back to the concept of negotiation in our last article of this four-part series next spring. 

Second, knowing that constraints may vary depending on one’s social identity (comprised of racial and ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, etc.), camp practitioners will need to narrow in on their target audience to help them identify both potential obstacles to accessing summer camp as well as the most promising strategies for overcoming those obstacles. For example, are you hoping to increase camper retention rates, or are you hoping to improve access among first-time campers? Are you hoping to increase attendance among a historically minoritized population? If yes, which one specifically? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you and your camp identify the barriers these families may be facing — and may lead you to very different strategies to help them overcome those barriers.

The next article in this series will shift gears to focus on preference development and how camps might help foster a strong-enough interest in summer camp programs to motivate families to want to overcome some of the obstacles we just discussed.

Jessie Dickerson, MS, is a recent graduate of the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah. She is the project manager for ACA’s Camp Program Quality Initiative.

Taylor M. Wycoff, is an MS candidate in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah and currently works as a research consultant for the ACA.


  • American Psychological Association. (2021). Culture. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. 
  • Dickerson, J. & Wycoff, T. M. (Sept-Oct, 2021). Considering access to summer camp. Camping Magazine. 
  • Godbey, G., Crawford, D. W., & Shen, X. S. (2010). Assessing hierarchical leisure constraints theory after two decades. Journal of Leisure Research, 42(1), 111–134.
  • Henderson, K. A., Stalnaker, D., & Taylor, G. (1988). The relationship between barriers to recreation and gender-role personality traits for women. Journal of Leisure Research, 20(1), 69–80.
  • Mooney, T. (2018). Why we say “opportunity gap” instead of “achievement gap”.  Teach For America.
  • Qualtrics. (2021) Online panels: Get responses for surveys & research.

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