Social skills and self-efficacy are fundamental processes and necessary for individuals in everyday life. Seeking employment, living independently, making friends, and trying new activities all require social skills and self-efficacy. Empirical studies have found that outdoor residential camps improve these areas of development in children and youth because of the social encounters, new activities, independence, and leadership opportunities provided by enthusiastic and supportive staff (Thurber, Scanlin, Scheuler, and Henderson 2007).

According to the American Camp Association® (ACA), social skills encompass many aspects: self-confidence, courtesy, values, reciprocity, compassion, and empathy (Gilmour and McDermott 2008). Individuals with appropriate social skills develop competencies, positive relationships and achieve greater success in life compared to those with poor social skills. Individuals lacking social competence place themselves at a greater risk for numerous problems from internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, and social phobias (Burt, Obradovic, Long, and Masten 2008) to externalizing behaviors such as bullying, conduct problems (Gilmour and McDermott 2008), and even later substance abuse (Burt et al. 2008). The desire for appropriate social skills development serves as a primary motivation for parents to enroll their children in camps (Colyn, DeGraaf, and Certan 2008).

Together with an individual’s overt behavior, their beliefs about themselves, such as self-efficacious beliefs, are of concern to parents and educators. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s perception
of their own competence and ability to succeed. Feelings of self-efficacy will determine the amount of energy and effort expended, how persistent an individual remains towards a particular activity, resiliency despite adversities, and also the level of performance achieved. High self-efficacy results if an individual has mastered a similar task or achieved success, observed someone successfully modeling a task, received positive encouragement or feedback from significant others, and prevented negative physiological symptoms such as anxiety, stress, or fatigue from lowering beliefs regarding capabilities (Pajares 1997).

Camp environments are becoming increasingly available for individuals of all ages, abilities, socioeconomic status groups, and cultural groups with a similar goal of providing community living outside the home within an outdoor educational setting (Thurber et al. 2007). The effects of camp have become a topic of interest for parents, educators, health professionals, camp staff, and volunteers since the powerful lessons acquired through developmentally appropriate experiences, influential role models, and community involvement are easily gained at camp and maintained following the camp experience (Henderson, Scheuler Whitaker, Bialeschki, Scanlin, and Thurber 2007; Thurber et al. 2007). Significant improvements in Positive Identity, Social Skills, Positive Values and Spiritual Growth, and Physical and Thinking Skills have been demonstrated among children who had attended a residential camp (Thurber et al. 2007). According to ACA, the camp experience fosters the development of “self-esteem, character, courage, responsibility, resourcefulness, and cooperation . . . Camp experiences help children develop the healthy emotional and social skills necessary to grow into strong, considerate, competent adults (ACA 2004 as cited in Fine 2005, p.9).”

Camps serve as nurturing, positive, and encouraging environments that blend aspects of Prevention Science and Positive Youth Development (Henderson et al. 2007; Thurber et al. 2007). Prevention Science refers to programs that target prevention of risky behaviors or youth problems and provide treatment to those who have experienced difficulty (National Youth Development Information Center 2001). There are, however, limitations such as focusing on single problem behaviors and ignoring child — environment interactions (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, and Hawkins 2004). Positive Youth Development encourages prevention of unhealthy behaviors by extending beyond risk reduction to emphasize protective factors. Positive Youth Development fosters the appropriate development of cognitive, social, and emotional factors to create a positive outcome (National Youth Development Information Center 2001).

Research demonstrates that a high-quality camp experience is beneficial for positive youth development because of immersion in nature and small group living with a lack of exposure to media and technology (Thurber et al. 2007). Many camps follow the Positive Youth Development framework that emphasizes different rates of development and maturity, diverse abilities, and the necessity for tasks to be tailored to the needs of each individual camper. The interdependency between the individual and environment creates growth in self-efficacy, motivation, and self-regulation, while social interaction encompasses community and teambuilding and fosters the development of appropriate social skills.

There is growing recognition that typically developing children and youth who attend a residential outdoor camp experience multidimensional growth in Positive Identity, Social Skills, Positive Values and Spiritual Growth, and Physical and Thinking Skills (Catalano et al. 2004; Henderson et al. 2007; and Thurber 2007). Through mental challenges, outdoor activities, fostered independence, and encouraging relationships, camps advocate a positive self-concept and encourage powerful self-efficacious beliefs (Thurber et al. 2007).

The current research study was based on the idea that many, although not all, individuals with special needs lack appropriate social skills and competencies (Burt et al. 2008). These individuals may enter an ongoing downward spiral since the deficits create a sense of failure and prevent individuals from developing motivation or initiative, resulting in low skill levels and poor self-efficacy. There is a need to develop and exercise these life skills to encourage independent living, social engagement, and community involvement. Camp can serve as a primary teaching environment to foster skills, optimism, friendships, and competence (Fine 2005; Thurber et al. 2007). To avoid marginalization and successfully overcome adversity, individuals with special needs require inclusion, support, and coaching on appropriate skills.

Camps provide an inclusive environment with novel attention so individuals may experience normal aspects of development and success which will improve their spirits, confidence, and outlook toward life (Klassen and Lynch 2007). The staff-camper mode of interaction emphasizes normalcy and replaces the traditional mindset that individuals with special needs are helpless and incapable (Shaver and Scheibe 1967). Opportunities for success at camp build on the strengths of campers and focus on similarities rather than differences to normalize their experience and emphasize their uniqueness. This is especially important for adults with special needs since, in Canada, individuals with disabilities are required to leave educational institutions at age twenty-one.

The purpose of the current research study was to investigate whether a summer residential camp experience increased levels of social interaction and improved feelings of social self-efficacy among adults diagnosed with special needs. This study was conducted at a camp that included individuals with various disabilities.

Observations and Data Collection

Five campers were observed at a seven-day residential summer camp for those with special needs. Campers ranged in age from twenty-two to twenty-seven years old with a mean of 24.2 years. All participants had been previously diagnosed with a form of mild to moderate special needs and campers’ diagnoses included mild developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, anxiety and compulsion, and other cognitive or physical delays. Despite the range of disability, all campers could communicate, participate in activities, take instruction with minimal prompting, and function effectively within a camp setting. Individuals with profound disabilities did not attend this camp due to a lack of necessary equipment and facilities, as well as the greater limitation of these individuals when participating in the majority of outdoor activities.

The Camper Growth Index — Camper (CGI-C) (Henderson, Thurber, Scheuler, Whitaker, Bialeschki, and Scanlin 2006) and Camper Growth Index — Staff Observational Checklist (CGI-SOC) (Thurber et al. 2007) were administered on the second and seventh days of camp. Individual interviews were conducted on the seventh day of camp following completion of the survey. Social behaviors and the type of social interaction campers were engaged in were also monitored and recorded twice daily.


Six campers were present at camp and completed the pre-camp questionnaire; however, one participant had to withdraw because of issues associated with medical noncompliance. The five remaining campers completed the final questionnaire and were observed throughout the week. Only data from the five campers who completed the camp were included in the analyses.

Staff observations of camper behavior were analyzed with a series of paired t-tests. There was significant camper growth in each of the four domains assessed by the CGI-SOC: Positive Identity, Social Skills, Positive Values and Spiritual Growth, and Physical and Thinking Skills. That is, all campers demonstrated improvements in maturity, independence, and positive self-perceptions; making friends and getting along with others; helpfulness, fairness, and decision making; and confidence, learning, improving new skills, and showing concern for nature.

Campers completed surveys on beliefs regarding their own abilities, confidence, and social awareness across camp. Camper self-reports did not show any significant change across camp since the high initial self-ratings at pre-camp resulted in a ceiling effect that left little room for growth. These results are consistent with previous research that has demonstrated a self-report bias from some children, those with special needs and even parents (Klassen and Lynch 2007; Henderson et al. 2007; and Thurber et al. 2007).

Assessment of campers’ social interaction was based on daily observations as to whether campers were solitary, in pairs or in groups, and whether the pair or group included fellow campers or staff. Across the time at camp, campers demonstrated a significant increase in social interaction resulting in less solitary behaviors and more group interactions. This improvement in social ability was supported by the campers’ own statements since the campers all reported making friends and learning new social skills. A finding of particular interest was a sudden decrease in campers’ social behaviors on Day Three of camp. This behavior reversal was directly related to the withdrawal of participant 06 from the study because of medical noncompliance and the resulting disruptive and aggressive behaviors directed towards others. Campers remained solitary or in close proximity to staff because of anxiety or discomfort expressed in response to the aggressive fellow camper and by being saddened at the idea of a friend leaving camp.

Despite the difficulties that resulted from an aggressive camper, many individuals expressed their feelings regarding the camper’s departure. Participant 02 described that it was difficult to connect with others, while participant 06 was present but quickly added in his friend’s defense that “it was just because [participant 06] was the first time away from home.” Participant 04 felt compassionate about his fellow camper’s situation and learned that “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” All campers showed great concern by inquiring the following day whether participant 06 had returned home safely.

When campers were asked about what skills they felt improved over the week, participant 01, 02, and 04 stated, respectively: “I got better at working with people,” “I got better at talking to people,” and “I got better at making friends, I guess.” When asked whether it was easier to make friends at camp or at home, participant 03 described: “It’s easy to make friends up here because people are more into getting along, and talking to each other like best pals” while participant 02 explained that “It’s easier to make friends at camp because you’re with them every day” and participant 05 said “It was easy to make friends because they’re good friends.” When campers were questioned regarding what they learned at camp, responses included, “I was nervous at first to make friends, but it got easy as the week went by, because you can talk to people” (01) and “I learned it’s good to spend time with people” (02). All statements made by the campers emphasized their realizations about friendship skills and their improved sense of social comfort.

Similarly, campers also discussed their sense of self-efficacy improving across camp with increased feelings of confidence, comfort, and ability to try new activities by overcoming fears or physical limitations. Campers overcame the following fears: swimming or entering shallow water, falling asleep without parental assistance, traveling in a canoe, and singing in public. Camper statements included: “I could swim out to the raft and not be nervous about it,” “I felt more comfortable with being in a canoe,” “I learned new things,” and “Now I do feel comfortable doing things on my own.”

This study extends previous research by examining the effects of camp with objective ratings and self-report instruments, but is among the first studies to investigate the role of camp on adults with disabilities. The results supported the hypothesis that campers would experience greater social interaction and an enhanced sense of self-efficacy from pre- to post-camp as demonstrated by staff observations, camper behavior, and qualitative camper interviews. The camp environment facilitated personal growth and assisted in the development of necessary life skills and competencies in individuals diagnosed with special needs.

As Brookman et al. (2003) discussed, there are few available summer opportunities for children with disabilities; therefore, one would expect even fewer summer camps for adults with disabilities. Based on the success of a summer residential camp for special needs adults, government agencies and other organizations should be promoting, supporting, and funding these opportunities so individuals receive equal access to camp and become recognized as active community members. The findings of the current study are hopeful for all, including communities, camp directors, families, caregivers, and most importantly, individuals with disabilities. As Helen Keller, a deaf and blind author and activist stated, “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” (Cook, Deger, and Gibson 2007). This study reveals how camps provide a positive environment that fosters these beliefs and results in campers making great gains and engaging in life-changing experiences.

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Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.