Some camps welcome teens, but others do not — perhaps because they find normative adolescent behaviors intolerable.
Why should we care? Because the summer camp experience is uniquely symmetrical with the developmental demands of this age group, including identity, independence, and social relationships.
After all, where would be better for teens than camp in terms of figuring out who they are and where they’re headed; learning to be independent, contributing young adults; and forging strong interpersonal friendships?
Another reason is that a trove of data in the American Camp Association’s (ACA) research vault confirms that teens receive the same benefits from camp as do their younger counterparts. These include such notable outcomes as increases in confidence and self-esteem, making new friends, exhibiting more leadership qualities, and an increasing willingness to try new things (ACA, 2022).
So, what’s the bottom line? According to a guest column by Lance Ozier for ACA, “Summer camp is a high-quality youth development program that helps students succeed in school by (1) promoting academic success directly, since camps provide the kinds of educational experiences learners need and/or (2) building the nonacademic competencies and skills that have been shown to support school success. While camp’s relationship to academic success in school may not be readily apparent, youth development outcomes of the camp experience have been rigorously evaluated, and educational psychologists have found these to have significant impacts on educational outcomes” (Ozier, n.d.).
Psychologist Erik Erikson delineated eight stages of psychosocial development that unfold in a sequential nature throughout the lifespan.
“During each stage, the person experiences a psychosocial crisis which could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development . . . . According to the theory, successful completion of each stage results in a healthy personality and the acquisition of basic virtues.
“Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore an unhealthier personality and sense of self. These stages, however, can be resolved successfully at a later time” (McLeod, 2018).
The fifth stage, “Identity vs. Role Confusion,” is particularly relevant to teens. How does a summer camp experience stack up?
Data from ACA’s “5-Year Impact Study” revealed the following (Browne, 2018):
Camp is a unique learning experience that appears to promote skills transferable to 21st-century school and work contexts.
Preliminary findings suggest that camp is a safe place for young people to explore who they are and how they want to be viewed by others.
Camp gives campers the opportunity to practice being around and appreciating people with attitudes, values, and abilities different from their own.
That same study highlighted that “even short or one-time experiences impact people’s lives into adulthood . . . and were a huge boost in academic and workplace confidence.” In addition, the authors shared that what makes camp a different kind of learning environment were “opportunities to be present in the moment” and to “explore one’s identity.”
Such gains are no doubt facilitated by the very nature of camping itself. Kids say they feel comfortable at camp and so are willing to do things they might not dream of doing at school.
About this type of positive risk-taking, Amy Broadbridge, director of Wisconsin’s Camp Deerhorn, says to parents:
It’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. But that’s not where the growth happens . . . The stretch zone is the sweet spot. It’s the place where we are a little out of our comfort zone but know we are safe and encouraged to try something new. Camp is the ultimate stretch zone. Campers are surrounded by people who care and will support them. They are encouraged to try new activities in a safe way. Effort is what is celebrated, not perfection. They can take “safe risks” on a daily basis . . . meeting new friends, trying new foods, attempting to get up on skis for the first time. The list is endless.
Camp offers up a variety of role models that allow teens to reflect attributes they witness that may ultimately be incorporated into their own identities. It also plays an important role in developing self-determination, “an important concept that refers to each person’s ability to make choices and manage their own life.” This ability plays an important role in psychological health and well-being. Self-determination allows people to feel they have control over their choices and lives. It also has an impact on motivation — people feel more motivated to take action when they feel that what they do will have an effect on the outcome (Cherry, 2022).
The concept of self-determination has been applied to a wide variety of areas including education, work, parenting, exercise, and health. Research suggests that having high self-determination can foster success in many different domains of life (Broadbridge, 2019).
Research evaluating self-determination and identity growth at camp includes the following (Gillard, 2013):
ACA’s 2005 national study of the outcomes of camp experiences showed that children become more adventurous at camp, which enabled them to try new things. About 75 percent of campers reported that they learned something new at camp.
Hattie et al. (1997) did a meta-analysis of adventure activities that the use of challenging outdoor activities resulted in the strongest effect sizes for self-control such as independence, self-efficacy, assertiveness, internal locus of control, and decision-making. Further, these outcomes increased 25 months later. Hattie et al. concluded that this study showed compelling evidence that structured, voluntary, challenging activities can have a powerful and sustainable effect on development.
Arnold et al. (2005) studied Oregon residential 4-H campers and found campers said they learned new things that they liked to do and that camp made them want to try new things. Girls were more likely than boys to respond in this way.
Garst and Bruce (2003) studied over 8,000 4-H campers in Virginia and found that the second most-often rated camp benefit was developing new skills in an area that the camper enjoyed. They also said they learned more about different subjects.
Brannan et al. (1997; 2000; n.d.) studied over 2,000 campers aged 7–21 with mild to severe disabilities and found significant growth related to achievement in outdoor activities. Campers with more severe disabilities also reported enjoyment and achievement from their participation in these activities.
Bialeschki and Scanlin (2005) described the research done with Youth Development Strategies Inc. with more than 7,600 campers. This preliminary study focused on skill building and opportunities for challenging and interesting activities as one important element. The findings indicated that 41 percent of the campers were in the optimal category for skill building and opportunities for challenging and interesting activities; however, 26 percent were in the insufficient area.
At summer camp, young people often find an environment that encourages independence and positive risk-taking. Kids frequently report that at camp they can be “themselves,” leaving behind what at school may be a prevalent “fear of failure” in favor of challenging themselves to try a new activity or make a new friend.
Similarly, forging deep relationships with near-age young adults (counselors and instructors) can build a teen’s capacity for independent thought and action.
Most important is a charge to camp counselors by Lonnie Carton, PhD, author of Raise Your Kids Right, to help campers — especially teens, perhaps — feel lovable and capable.
According to Richard Lerner, PhD, author of The Good Teen, some important character traits include competence, confidence, connection, character, caring . . . and contribution (Carton, 1984).
Additional ACA research revealed the following:
Camp appears to be a key context for developing relationship skills. This is consistent with past research on camp, but findings suggest that the relationship skills young people gain at camp might play a role beyond the camp experience.
As a context for developing relationship skills, preliminary findings suggest that camp is an integral part of a young person’s overall learning, alongside school and other educational contexts.
According to ACA, “Camp is an experience every child deserves” — specifically, the “joy” kids feel when they make new friends and the inherent value in unplugging from their electronic devices, enjoying being out of doors, connecting with other young people, and learning about themselves.
From a quantifiable perspective, the outcomes of a summer camp experience include the following:
- Friendship skills: Make friends and maintain relationships.
- Independence: Rely less on adults and other people for solving problems and determining day-to-day activities.
- Teamwork: Be more effective working in groups of peers.
- Family citizenship: Gain attributes important to being a member of a family.
- Perceived competence: Believe that they can be successful in the things they do.
- Interest in exploration: Be more curious and eager to learn new things.
- Responsibility: Learn to be accountable for their own actions and mistakes.
- Affinity for nature: Develop feelings of emotional attraction toward nature.
- Problem-solving confidence: Believe they have abilities to resolve problems.
- Spiritual well-being: Develop purpose and meaning in life.
Camps are also being recognized as incubators for highly valued noncognitive or “soft skills” and as places to hone leadership and social entrepreneurship skills.
Here are some of the things teens in a leadership program relayed about their experience:
Julian: I had always been a quiet and introverted individual, but around four years ago that changed. During my first year in the leadership program, I formed bonds with friends that stand strong even today. Throughout my second to third year, I not only saw myself improving as a leader but also as a person. By the time my final year rolled around, I had some pretty big shoes to fill. With the support of my friends and with the camp environment that has become like a home to me, I was ready to really step up as a leader. My camp experience has forever changed me and made me a more confident person.
Sophie: As a teen leader, I was exhausted every evening after a full day of taking care of the campers and fully engaging in the camp community. However, I knew that my girls were counting on me to be present and engaged in their lives as well. I also wanted to set a good example for them. Even as a younger leader, I knew that campers looked up to me and expected me to lead them. This confidence, especially in times of uncertainty, in activities I was unfamiliar with or when asked a question that I did not know the answer to, would never have come as easily if I had not devoted so much of my time and energy to learning how to be not only a good camp counselor, but also a good leader.
Grace: I believe camp has prepared me immensely for college. I have learned how to be more independent and to interact with adults better, and I have become increasingly more confident and able to lead. I am used to living with at least 12 others in a small cabin, so I know that sharing a dorm will be no problem. I have learned to work my hardest and communicate with those evaluating me, which has enabled me to interact with my teachers better, and I know this will help me with my professors in the future.
Their words powerfully convey why it’s worthwhile to run a program for teens — even at a summer camp wary of them.
Photos courtesy of Surprise Lake Camp, Cold Spring, NY; Oak Hill School Summer Programs, Eugene, OR; Camp Common Ground, Oakland, CA; Camp Cherith, Hunt, NY.
- Allison, J. and D. Gediman. (2007). This I believe: The personal philosophies of remarkable men and women. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.
- ACA. (2022). Directions: youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Research and Evaluation. ACAcamps.org/resource-library/research/directions-youth-development-outcomes-camp-experience
- Broadbridge, A. (2019, February 8). The stretch zone. Camp Deerhorn. deerhorn.com/stretch_zone/
- Browne, L. (2018, January 29). Research 360: Promising themes from phase 1 of the 5-year impact study. American Camp Association. ACAcamps.org/news-publications/blogs/research-360
- Carton, L. (1984). Raise your kids right: Candid advice on how to say no. New York, NY: Pocket Publishing.
- Cherry, K. (2022, September 22). What is self-determination theory? VerywellMind. Dotdash Media. verywellmind.com/what-is-self-determination-theory-2795387
- Gillard, A. (2013). Self-determination theory and camp. Briefing paper prepared for the American Camp Association. ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/downloads/Briefing-Paper-Self-Determination-Theory.pdf
- McLeod, S. (2018). Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Simply Psychology. simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html#identity
- Ozier, L. (n.d.). Learning. American Camp Association. ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/downloads/Briefing-Paper-Learning.pdf
- Wallace, S. (2019, August 27). Maybe I’m amazed. What happened at summer camp. Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201908/maybe-i-m-amazed
- Wallace, S. (2018, March 24). 10 reasons why high school students will get a lot from summer camp. Teenlife.com. teenlife.com/blog/10-reasons-why-high-school-students-will-get-lot-camp
Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is a doctoral candidate in the Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Thomas University in Miami. He is also an associate research professor and president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). Stephen has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is a member of the professional development faculties at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBC News Learn, and WebMD. He is also an expert partner at the Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and CEO at SADD for 16 years. Stephen is an award-winning writer and author of the books Reality Gap, IMPACT, and Bad Blood? Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.
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