The benefits to youth from camping are well known by former campers, their parents, and camp directors. However, little research is available on the influence that an organized camping experience has on youth, mainly because there seems to be general agreement that camp is good for kids. A recent meta-analysis of the available research determined the state of knowledge on the influence that the organized camping experience has on the self-constructs: self-esteem, self-confidence, and other aspects of self. The results are good news for camping.

Promoting Healthy Youth Development
The development needs of youth have been well defined and include, among other elements, positive adult role models and a positive sense of self. Youth development is the physical and cognitive (or mental) growth of youth between six and twenty-two years old. The constructs of self-concept and self-esteem are considered to be the best indicators for assessing this development or growth. Having positive self-constructs is considered important to healthy development.

Yet, rapid social changes have made it more difficult for today’s youth to have experiences that allow them to develop positive self-constructs. Youth and adults interact less frequently because fewer generations live in the home, both parents often work, and many children grow up in single-parent households. Neighborhoods are more transient as well, making it difficult for youth to feel connected to their community. Budgetary considerations have made it difficult for schools to meet both the educational and developmental needs of students. A summary of the research that has been done on camping’s influence on youth development needs shows that camping can provide an avenue to effectively respond to these development needs.

Camping Enhances the Self-constructs
The analysis of the available research finds positive and significant results: positive in that the camping experience does enhance the self-constructs of youth, and significant in that the result is not due to chance alone. However, the findings also show that not all camps make a positive contribution to self-constructs. Only those camps that have a focus on self-enhancement as a working part of their programs and philosophy actually contribute to a youth’s development of positive self. Furthermore, campers aged six to ten benefit more than older campers.

These findings are in accord with current psychological theory that suggest a positive result for programs designed to have an influence and a greater result for younger as opposed to older campers. The significant influence on the self in the relatively short period of from one to eight weeks, as opposed to several months or longer, represents an exception to current theory about the length of time required in order to have an influence on the self.

Focused programs enhance self
From the findings of this study, one can conclude that an organized camping experience that is focused on enhancing self-constructs does enhance the self. Therefore, the experience contributes to the youth development need of developing a positive self-image.

Research shows that a set of socially desirable outcomes results from enhancement of one’s self-constructs. These outcomes include easier adjustment to new environments, a greater sense of personal satisfaction, and personal habits that lead to a healthy lifestyle. If a camp experience enhances self-constructs, then camp is an environment that parents and communities should include in strategies that are designed to meet youth development needs.

Younger campers benefit more
The enhancement of self is greater for younger campers, indicating a benefit to starting camp at an early age, as young as age six. The positive results across all ages suggests that camps with a self-enhancement focus provide for the positive self-esteem development needs of all youth.

The identified development needs of children and early-adolescents suggest that a positive self-image is desirable. Thus, beginning to establish this positive self-image at an earlier age would give an individual a stronger personal foundation. In turn, this foundation would allow the individual to adjust more easily to changes in their personal environment and consequently increase the likelihood of the individual adopting healthy living habits through the difficult period of adolescence.

Camp does give kids a world of good
The significant positive influence on self in a relatively short period of time, across all ages, identifies the organized camping experience as an effective means for parents and communities in order to address the development needs of youth.

The argument for including camps is made stronger through the identification of the positive effect as being applicable across the broad age range of from six to twenty-two years old. Including camps in youth development strategies is further strengthened through the power of the camping experience to generate this effect over a relatively short period of time, ranging from one to eight weeks as opposed to several months or longer.

Adding Self-enhancement to Camp Programs
Camps that offer programs to youth that do not have a focus on enhancing self probably offer the beneficial outcomes that they advertise. Those outcomes have not yet been substantiated through research, and were beyond the scope of this study. These camps can enhance their program outcomes by adopting operational philosophies that address self-development. Camps that add the focus of self-enhancement are then in a better position to participate in community strategies that are designed to address youth development needs. The summer camp program method and philosophy can be utilized in environmental and outdoor education programs throughout the school year. The programming and philosophies can also be applied to after-school programs that address the portion of the day when many youth have unstructured and unsupervised time.

There are common factors that can be identified in the camp programs that have a focus on enhancing a construct of self. The camps with a self-enhancing program provide an environment that is reinforcing to a camper’s sense of self. The reinforcement occurs through positive feedback and the general attitude that supports the camper’s identity as an individual. This environment of positive interaction is established either by hiring staff with experience or training in development of self-constructs or by developing this sensitivity during the camp’s staff training program.

Camps that enhance self also provide an environment in which the camper feels some sense of control over the experience. This control is accomplished by involving campers to some extent in the planning or management of their camp experience. The involvement can be as simple as asking the camper for feedback or input and by responding in a way that demonstrates that the exchange was taken seriously. A camper’s sense of control is also based in the understanding of why things are the way they are; "because" is not a sufficient answer.

Camp professionals whose camp’s philosophy focuses on enhancing self-constructs can use the positive findings of this study to generate support from philanthropic and other funding organizations and to promote to parents the positive effects of camp programs focused on self-enhancement. By emphasizing the greater positive effect for younger campers, camping professionals can encourage parents to introduce children to camping at an age where the child will get the maximum positive effect from the experience.

In light of the rapid change in American society, the social desirability of self-enhancement, and the identified development needs of youth, these findings can be useful to parents and communities that are interested in identifying experiences that contribute to positive youth development.


Originally published in the 1999 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.