Considering Access to Summer Camp is a four-part series aimed at helping camp practitioners increase access to summer camp for all youth. The first article discussed summer camp as a developmentally enriching experience. It also focused on 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 to help visualize how families experience constraints when accessing summer camp programs. The second article considered constraints in greater detail and how they are shaped by culture. This third article focuses on the role of preference in accessing summer camp programs. 

Throughout this series, we are 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.

Interest: A feeling of excitement or curiosity about or a desire to be involved with something. Interest is considered an intrapersonal constraint for children (e.g., if they, the child, are excited to attend summer camp programs) and an interpersonal constraint for parents (e.g., if their child will be excited to attend summer camp programs). While “preference” denotes favoring one activity over another, and “motivation” denotes a driving desire for participation, “interest” is distinct in that it is a state of wanting to participate.

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.

Preference: Across multiple disciplines, “preference” serves as a technical term used in relation to choosing between alternatives. For example, a child may choose to audition for the afterschool play rather than try out for the soccer team because they have developed a preference for, or interest in, theater. Preferences are central to decision-making due to their potential to drive behavior. 

The Role of Preference in Accessing Summer Camp Programs

Early constraint literature defines constraints as “any factor that intervenes between the preference for an activity and participation in it” (Crawford & Godbey, 1987). This definition recognizes the role of preference in the overall experience of accessing programs. That is, if families do not prefer summer camp programs, they will not begin to negotiate constraints toward participation in said summer camp programs. When it comes to summertime activities, some parents may prefer that their child play in a summer sports league or continue music lessons rather than attend a summer camp. Therefore, it’s important that we examine just how big a role preference plays in accessing summer camp programs.

Let’s review our Summer Camp Constraint Negotiation Model. The model begins with the individuals: an adult in the role of a parent or caregiver and the child. Then the first step toward participating in summer camp programs is for the individuals to have a preference for the programs — that is, they must have a greater desire to participate in these programs than in another type of summertime program.

During interviews, families described their experience regarding preference for summer camp programs as a process where something first initiated their preference. From there, their preference for summer camp programs was developed. For example, one parent described this process as:

1) The first real push to explore it was because my husband and I both work, we were looking for something that could give [our child] a full experience . . . I had not found an au pair or someone to drive the kids around to different activities, so day camp seemed like a good option and then the truth is, 2) I went to one of those camp fairs just to explore it. 

The first point in this example shows the preference initiation, and the second shows how the preference was developed. Tables 1 and 2 show the different ways parents and children reported preference initiation and preference development during interviews. 

Table 1. Evidence of Preference Initiation from Interviews

Table 2. Evidence of Preference Development from Interviews

Frequently, part of preference development within families was one party encouraging preference development in the other. This is signified in our model by the crossing green arrows moving from preference initiation in the parent or child toward preference development in the other. Depending on who experiences the preference initiation (the parent or the child), preference development in the other party might take different forms.

A child won’t always have a choice. For example, one parent told us, “He knows I’m going to force him to go. And that’s true. I mean, I give him the choice of types of camp he wants to do, but it’s not an option to just be home.” This quote shows how parents might develop preference for their child. 
In another example, a parent shared how a child might develop preference for summer camp programs in the parent:

[My child’s] older brother went to the camp, and he had tons of fun . . . . He found out about it and then kind of told us what it was, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re coming to the school next week.’ And so we were there, and once we learned more about what the camp was, and he was still excited, he wanted to apply. 

Once a preference for summer camp programs has been developed for the family, the family may continue toward participation by negotiating the factors that constrain their access to summer camp programs. Constraint negotiation will be discussed in depth in the next installment of this series.

Preference and Culture

As researchers, we have intentionally created space for the impactful role that culture plays in the experiences of families outside of the dominant culture when accessing summer camp programs, including the experience of constraints. That being said, we recognize that culture shapes all experiences. That is, culture shapes not only the constraints that exist and how families negotiate them, but also the preference for summer camp programs.

You may recall from our first article that demographic data exposes a gap in participation for youth from marginalized backgrounds: 65 percent of day campers and 68 percent of overnight campers attending ACA-accredited camps were white, and between 76 percent and 79 percent of overnight campers come from middle- and high-income households (American Camp Association, 2017). Addressing differing preferences for families from marginalized backgrounds might be a first step in closing the opportunity gap in access to summer camp programs. 

For example, a study conducted by Delgado and Ford (1998) found that while low-income Mexican-American parents value outcomes we know are developed at camp (e.g., independence and self-confidence; Bialeschki et al., 2007), they might see themselves as the main factor in the development of those outcomes. Thus, without an acknowledgement of or appreciation for summer camp as a setting in which these valued outcomes may be developed, these families are unlikely to develop a preference for summer camp programs.

Implications for Practitioners

Families will not participate in summer camp if they do not have a preference for it. Camp practitioners should understand preference as a process beginning with preference initiation and ending with preference development. The data from the Delgado and Ford study highlights many ways camp practitioners can successfully impact the preference process for families they hope to serve.

Practitioners might consider marketing their programs locally, collaborating with other people who work with the demographic they are trying to serve (e.g., doctors who work with children with special needs, teachers). They could additionally recruit families who already attend their camp to promote programs to new families to encourage preference initiation in their programs. Once preference has been initiated, practitioners can invite new families to visit their camp facilities and meet the staff.

With increasing access to their programs as the goal, practitioners must consider the cultural differences of the youth in their community and target population, and the role this plays in the preference for their programs. Supporting the preference process while also supporting culturally diverse values could increase the inclusivity, and ultimately the access, of summer camp programs.

The next and final article in this series will review what we have learned so far and then will focus on the process of constraint negotiation and how camp practitioners can support families in accessing their programs.

Jessie Dickerson, MS, is a recent graduate from the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah and is the manager of research and education for ACA.

Taylor M. Wycoff, MS, is a recent graduate from the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah and is the research and evaluation specialist for ACA.


  • American Camp Association. (2017). Camper Enrollment Report.
  • Bialeschki, M. D., Henderson, K. A., & James, P. A. (2007). Camp experiences and developmental outcomes for youth. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 16(4), 769–788, vi.
  • Crawford, D. W. & Godbey, G. (1987). Reconceptualizing barriers to family leisure. Leisure Sciences, 9(2), 119–127.
  • Delgado, B. M., & Ford, L. (1998). Parental Perceptions of Child Development Among Low-Income Mexican American Families. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 7(4), 469–481. 
  • Jackson, E. L., Crawford, D. W., & Godbey, G. (1993). Negotiation of leisure constraints. Leisure Sciences, 15(1), 1–11.


Campwise ad