I sat on a red camping chair in the middle of a cozy cabin in the woods with the beams of nine small flashlights shining in my face from the surrounding bunks. Third- through fifth-grade 4-H campers giggled and called out, “Fox!” “Starbucks!” “Build-a-Bear!” 

Upon request, they each provided words or phrases to create a bedtime story. 

“Traveler, like us.” 

My imagination shifted into high gear as more words and phrases were added to the list, and I tried to dust off my camp counselor skills from 20 years ago. I chuckled to myself about my previous expectations for conducting a neat and tidy camp research study. 

Earlier that day, I was sitting cross-legged on a table in the 4-H camp lodge scribbling observation notes on a yellow legal pad when two young women (seniors in high school and volunteer counselors) walked up and asked, “Could you sit in the cabin with our campers during the staff meeting tonight?”

The counselors explained that the girls were having a really hard time getting to sleep at night. Having stood outside noisy cabins the previous three nights until 11:30 p.m. while the counselors had their staff meeting and took showers, I knew that was true.

These two conscientious counselors recognized what hours of data analysis confirmed: bedtime was by far the hardest time at camp for all the kids. At this beautiful lakeside 4-H camp, the volunteer counselors always had their meetings at camper “lights out,” leaving third through eighth graders to self-regulate and get to sleep on their own. Many camper surveys offered references to the difficulty of getting to sleep at night, the arguments at bedtime, and — conversely — the safety they felt when counselors were present. 

On that final night of camp, I ventured into the cabin to fill the important role of a frontline staff member. As a mother to four young children, I knew the importance of a bedtime routine and was motivated to be creative and make it fun.

After bathroom trips and hair brushing were complete, with word suggestions collected and the lights turned off, I spent the next 15 minutes telling a quiet, rambling, silly tale about wild animals and coffee in the distant future. The story involved a bit of dystopian imagery with a playful spin. It described the city of Seattle, Washington, but deserted, with trees, vines, and flowers beginning to cover the empty businesses and skyscrapers. 

The story began with a friendly Seattle-dwelling fox who loved Starbucks coffee. He had dreams of learning to brew coffee, rather than simply nibbling on the many beans left behind during the mysterious desertion of the city. One day, a dog joined the fox, and together they learned how to restore and use the coffee machines in a long-abandoned Starbucks café. Using more of the girls’ chosen words, I introduced a shy and nervous wolf to the story. The wolf could never get enough courage to befriend the dog and fox until he met a young traveling girl with a blue backpack. Though she was alone, she carried with her a stuffed wolf (made years ago at a Build-a-Bear workshop, of course), and gradually she and the real wolf became inseparable. At night they slept curled up, keeping each other safe and warm. 

As time went on, all three animals and the young traveling girl became friends. Though the animals all enjoyed the coffee, the girl never understood the appeal. 

By the end of the story, most of the girls were asleep, and those who were still awake drifted off quickly after one final “Shush.”

When the girls’ tired counselors returned from their late-night meeting, they were relieved to find all nine campers sound asleep. 

Ultimately, some of my most important research-based recommendations for the camp related to the importance of security and routine at bedtime and adjusting the time of the counselors’ meeting. 

Aside from practicing creative storytelling, the exercise also provided significant insight into the challenge of balancing multiple roles during the research process. As an unpaid camp researcher, I wore many different hats throughout the summer, engaging in systematic observations, administering camper surveys, and conducting focus groups. Additional roles included serving meals, assisting with activities, accompanying injured campers to the nurse’s cabin, and listening to concerns from counselors and other staff.

Through this experience, I gained valuable perspective on the messiness and importance of on-site research studies. Without the time telling stories in the cabin, it would have been harder to understand the hundreds of camper surveys I analyzed. Sometimes, being on site is the only way to gain understanding of activities, routines, and camper experiences unique to a particular camp. Additionally, it is difficult to create camp surveys that truly capture all elements of camp life. Interpretation of ratings and responses may be limited without direct experience with a camp. 

In addition to asking campers to share their favorite parts of camp, they were also asked what was difficult and about a few targeted camp experiences. The 4-H camp leaders wanted to understand camper perceptions about safety, new experiences, and cabin group social dynamics. Campers provided numeric ratings as well as open-ended responses on each of these topics. In many cases, themes found in comments about safety were clarified within comments about the cabin group or overall camp experience. Through considering each element separately and together, overarching themes emerged — especially related to interpersonal relationships. And since I was present at camp for three weeks, dozens of pages of field notes and observations impacted my interpretations of camper responses. 

For example, when campers wrote negative comments on surveys about a particular counselor, my field notes provided references to specific interactions observed between that counselor and their campers. When campers mentioned insect fears, notes confirmed an hour-long chat with a group of tear-stained campers and counselors who were struggling with painful wasp stings. Not only did these observations help with interpretation of responses, but they provided rich information to give to the camp leadership for program improvement.

When camp professionals can engage a student researcher or professional consultant in helping to evaluate their camp, including on-site observation as part of the project should be encouraged. I am grateful for my experiences immersed in camp life and would like to share a few lessons learned that may positively impact the program planning, training, implementation, and evaluation processes:

  • Provide counselors with appropriate training on the importance of calming bedtime routines — especially for first-time campers.
  • Give counselors examples of fun traditions at bedtime, such as improvised storytelling (previously described), reading from a book, or a kid-friendly relaxation exercise. 
  • Consider the campers’ needs during the time of counselor meetings and how and by whom those needs could be met.
  • When evaluating camp programs, alongside positively worded questions, always ask open-ended questions, such as “What was hard about camp?” to gain a clearer understanding of areas that need improvement. 

Amanda Palmer is a doctoral student in Movement Sciences at the University of Idaho conducting research with Sharon Stoll, PhD, director of the Center for ETHICS*. Amanda holds a Master of Science in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism Management, and her research focus is youth development through overnight camp programs. Originally from Washington State, Amanda lives with her husband, four children, and two cats in beautiful Moscow, Idaho.