Disenfranchised by Design?

Nearly 40 percent of ten- to eighteen-year-olds report insufficient levels of involvement in camp (ACA 2006). That statistic surprised most camp professionals when it was published in 2006. With just 9 percent of youth reporting optimal levels of youth involvement, camp professionals wondered: Don't we involve campers in all kinds of ways at camp? Not as frequently or powerfully as we could, according to the campers. Their feelings are unambiguous on the topic. If you're ready to shift your thinking and respond to their need for more involvement, read on.

Conventional wisdom holds that camp is an institution expressly designed to involve youth. Camper involvement was perhaps best summarized by Hedley Dimock in 1948:

. . . the camp community possesses most of the elements of a normal community, but in a simplified form. Here may be found the functions of government, home, health, employment, recreation, and religion. Because of the relative simplicity and immediacy of the camp community, these basic functions can be concretely visualized, participated in, and shared by the camper (Dimock 1948).

Empirical research on positive youth development also documents the importance of youth involvement. For example, Youth Development Strategies Inc. (YDSI) has a "Community Action Framework for Youth Development" that cites "meaningful opportunities for involvement and membership" as an essential precursor for improving youth development outcomes, which in turn lead to improved long-term outcomes in adulthood (Gambone and Connell 2002). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child even made youth participation a fundamental right of young people (O'Donoghue, Kirshner, and McLaughlin, 2006).

If it would improve camp, it is worth taking a look at ways to increase youth involvement at camp. This article will present a rationale and explanation of ways that developmentally appropriate leadership opportunities could be provided in camps. But first, we must share an understanding of what it means to truly involve youth.

What Do We Mean by "Youth Involvement"?

One excellent conceptual model of youth involvement comes from the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development and the National 4-H Council. Their 2001 publication, Building Community, outlines a spectrum of attitudes underlying youthadult relationships. It delineates four different levels of youth involvement, shown in Figure 1 (Innovation Center for Community and Youth Involvement & National 4-H Council 2001). Results of the 2006 ACA/YDSI research, published in a booklet entitled, Inspirations, accessible, suggest that many camps are operating — intentionally or unintentionally — in a "Youth as Recipients" mode, occasionally venturing into "Youth as Resources" mode or reverting to "Youth as Objects" for some program delivery. If this is indeed the case at many camps, then a prerequisite to increasing youth involvement must be to radically alter our attitude. One answer to the question, "How can camps increase youth involvement?" is: You must see campers themselves as resources and partners.

Another way to look at the construct of youth involvement is to deconstruct the instrument used to measure it. For YDSI, the construct "Youth Involvement" is composed of three sub-constructs: Decision Making, Youth Leadership, and Belonging. Sample items include: (for Decision Making) "I get to decide which activities I'm going to do here"; (for Youth Leadership) "I have been in charge of things, for example, cabin clean-up, group cookouts, meal-time tasks"; and (for Belonging) "I feel like I am a part of camp."

This data-driven approach to improving youth involvement helps provide a second answer to the question, "How can camps increase youth involvement?" They should allow campers to: (1) choose and plan activities; (2) lead or co-lead activities; (3) participate in camp governance, including discipline; and (4) have their voice heard by the camp community.

To be maximally effective, youth involvement at camp should rest on a blend of attitudinal enhancements and meaningful opportunities for youth to plan, choose, preside, and mentor. It requires that personnel at camp embrace an attitude that children and young adolescents at camp are resources and partners in the successful operation of the camp. And it requires that camp personnel provide developmentally appropriate opportunities for children to lead themselves and others.

What Others Have Tried

The closest we might come to a model program of youth involvement at camp (where young leaders provide youth involvement opportunities to children) is by extrapolating various positive youth development programs downward. Several programs exist, but few have been subjected to rigorous evaluation. Anecdotal and qualitative data suggest that some of these programs work, but when it comes to empirically validated programs for teaching camp-age children (say four- to fifteen-year-olds) to lead, there are few, if any.

One example of a program whereby adults involve camp-age children in leadership comes from the journal Teacher Librarian (Sanacore 2006). This program saw a need to provide exciting, relevant, and educational books and realized that involving children themselves was key. The librarians' attitude was that children were resources and partners. The children were asked to name their favorite books, read and report on different books, answer questionnaires, conference with their teachers, and, ultimately, help select books and design library spaces.

The author of the program reported that children's high level of involvement led to: (a) better book selection; (b) pride and a sense of ownership; (c) more interested readers; and (d) better attitudes toward reading. The hope was to increase overall literacy, especially among lowerincome children — the group most likely to borrow library books, rather than purchase new books.

An example of an activity (not a comprehensive program) whereby camp staff involve children in meaningful decisions comes from a 4-H training manual (New York State 4-H Camping Program and Sally Crosiar 2003). The manual contains staff training activities such as "Engage Camper Decision Making" wherein participants discuss how adults encouraged or discouraged their independence when they were children. The training module continues with a practice session designed to simulate how a staff member would facilitate group decision making.

Other examples of youth involvement come from the programs developed by the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development (The Innovation Center 2003). These programs provide a detailed, step-by-step "toolbox" of activities, handouts, and literature aimed to promote youth-adult partnerships. Each program begins by gathering adults and young people together, then using an activity to shift existing attitudes toward the "youth as partners" end of the attitudinal spectrum. Then, whether the program is working with Hopi Indians or the Young Women's Project, the participants design, implement, and evaluate cooperative community programs. The programs have been shown to increase the civic involvement and community leadership of youth.

One limitation of the Innovation Center's work is that the programs primarily involved youth ages seventeen to twenty-one. For most camps, these are not the targets of our proposed "youth involvement" program. Youth ages seventeen to twenty-one. are, in most cases, our camp leaders. To extrapolate downward to four to fifteen year-olds requires thinking about what age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate leadership and decision making opportunities are best.

It is clear from the Innovation Center's work that youth involvement must be meaningful and substantive to be effective. So-called "tokenistic" forms of involvement, such as "pick whether you do baseball first period or second period" are less likely to result in strong feelings of involvement and belongingness. As stated by researchers with the National 4-H Council, "Young people . . . need to be involved not only in day-to-day programming decisions, but they should also be involved in organizational governance (Zeldin et al. 2000)."

Moving Toward Camper Leadership

Many camps tout their ability to create future leaders, so perhaps "camper leadership" is a fruitful direction for youth involvement. Given what we know about the value and methods of youth involvement, how could camps build out and rework existing leadership opportunities for children at camp? Leadership at camp, viewed from the perspective of ACA's publication Inspirations, entails the following:

  • Choosing — Campers choose from a menu of activities outlined in daily schedule. Campers may also choose, once at an activity, how to do things.
  • Planning — Campers design and plan new activities, events, meals, etc.
  • Mentoring — Campers serve as role models in activities with younger campers.
  • Presiding — Campers lead some activities, including program periods and discussions.
  • Governing — Campers help decide on rules and what to do when rules are broken. Campers may also take part in staff hiring, evaluation, and firing.

In addition, researchers have identified these other aspects of youth involvement that may be important components of camper leadership:

  • Evaluating — Campers design and execute program evaluations.
  • Envisioning — Campers' voices contribute to high-level philosophical discussions about the camp's mission, vision, and values.

The list above ranges from tokenistic (e.g., choosing whether to go to baseball or soccer) to substantive (e.g., constructing and enforcing rules). According to the ACA/YDSI research, most youth involvement is tokenistic. Most camps offer campers some choice about what to do during a predetermined "free time" slot in their schedules. Most camps also offer campers some opportunities to repeat certain activities they enjoy.

Some camps enlist campers' help in planning or implementing special activities. Other camps have staff prepare these activities and present them wholesale to campers. Some camps also allow older campers to serve as "big brothers" or "big sisters" to younger campers. And some camps allow campers to help in the construction of bunk rules.

Few camps allow campers to take part in designing the overall camp schedule, the overall menu, or the hiring and evaluation of staff. Few camps allow campers to run activity periods. And few camps, if any, allow campers to participate in the discipline of other campers.

Obstacles to Camper Leadership

Several obstacles exist to providing more opportunities for decision-making and leadership to campers:

  1. Some campers may not want such responsibilities. Even if adults see children as resources and partners, the children's view of camp is "entertain me."
  2. Some campers may not be developmentally ready or able to handle some decision-making and leadership opportunities.
  3. Some camp directors may not want the liability of including untrained minors in the running of camp.
  4. Most camps seem to be programmed experiences for young people. To involve them in leadership and decision-making would require shifts in organizational philosophy and program structure.
  5. Most camp staff are not trained in the provision of meaningful decisionmaking and leadership opportunities to camper-age children. In fact, for most camp staff, their camp job is their own first meaningful decisionmaking and leadership opportunity. They are barely getting a handle on it themselves, much less becoming prepared to share the leadership of the camp. One study suggests that even if camp staff are taught ways to involve campers more, they have trouble doing it (Schaumleffel and Payne 2006).

None of these obstacles is insurmountable. However, any program designed to endow campers with more leadership and decision-making must intentionally work around at least the five obstacles above. In addition, several myths surround the broad practice of youth participation (O'Donoghue, Kirshner, and McLaughlin, 2006). These must also be overcome.

Myth 1: Youth participation is accomplished simply by placing one youth on a board or committee.
Myth 2: Youth participation means that adults surrender their roles as guides and educators. 
Myth 3: Adults are psychologically and programmatically ready for youth participation. 
Myth 4: Youth themselves are ready to participate: They just need the opportunity.

Clearly, providing meaningful leadership and decision-making opportunities to campers would necessitate:

  • Having the camp's director and senior staff prepared to fully integrate campers into heretofore "staff-only" professional territory;
  • All camp staff understanding that leadership will be shared with campers, not relinquished to them;
  • Adults and campers agree philosophically on a youth-adult partnership; and
  • Explicit training for adults and campers in methods for promoting youth participation.

Appropriate Roles for Adults and Children

To the extent that camp professionals see children's summer camps as programs constructed for youth or delivered to youth, the role that adults play is paramount. If some camps were to shift to a "youth as resources" or "youth as partners" model of program delivery, they would need to maintain a clear vision of adults' roles.

Authors Kathrin Walker and Reed Larson argue that adult-driven youth programs are not oxymoronic (Walker and Larson 2006). As they put it, "It is important for program staff to consider how much input, daily decision making, and authority should be vested in the adult leaders versus the youth participants for a particular program." Walker and Larson summarize the rationales and liabilities of adult- and youth-driven approaches in this way:

It is clear from Walker and Larson's comparative research that the adult-driven model works well with some programs, such as the production of a play, whereas the youth-driven model works well with other programs, such as an FFA youth group that planned a two- and one-half day summer day camp for fourth grade children. When considering the kinds of leadership and decision-making opportunities that would work well in a day or resident camp, perhaps a balance can be struck between adult-driven and youthdriven programs.

Any kind of youth participation must at least be: (a) safe; (b) congruent with the camp's mission; (c) developmentally appropriate; (d) meaningful rather than tokenistic; (e) trained and evaluated for effectiveness; and (f) integrated with the overall program of activities and leadership training of the camp. Consider Table 2 for sample ideas for youth leadership and decision-making that meet these criteria. How might these ideas be adopted at your camp?


If camp directors understand the developmental benefits of providing campers with meaningful opportunities for leadership and decision-making, they may be willing to change their existing program content and structure. If camp directors do make these changes, the benefits to campers and to the camp may be profound. When campers experience optimal levels of leadership and decision-making, it engenders a great sense of belongingness to the camp community. In turn, this attachment and loyalty may increase return rates of both campers and staff, as well as strengthen internal leadership development programs.

Camp-based opportunities for leadership and decision-making also lay the foundation for outside-world-based opportunities. Providing meaningful opportunities for leadership and decision making is one way that camps ready children for successful adulthood.

Two essential steps required for enhanced youth participation at camp are:

  • A philosophical shift from "camp as entertainment/youth as objects or recipients" to "camp as learning experience/youth as resources and partners"; and
  • Well-designed staff training that teaches staff the distinction between tokenistic involvement and true partnership, along with several methods for engaging campers as partners.

Steps of this magnitude are taken slowly at most camps. For especially motivated camp professionals, the "sample process" sidebar provides an outline of the process you might follow. For those less sure about involving campers in more meaningful ways at camp, I invite you to examine what you've already got. Consider the current status of youth involvement at your camp and talk with your staff about making small changes that get campers more involved in leadership and decision making. Better yet: Talk with your campers about how they'd like to become more involved.

Figure 1: Youth-Adult Relationship Attitude Type
Table 1: Pros and Cons of Adult-Driven and Youth-Driven Programs
Table 2: Sample Ideas for Youth Leadership and Decision Making at Camp
Sample Process Sidebar

American Camp Association. (2006). Inspirations: Developmental Supports and Opportunities of Youths' Experiences at Camp. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Dimock H.S. (1948). Administration of the Modern Camp. New York: Association Press (YMCA of the USA). p. 29.

Gambone, M. & Connell, J. (2002). Youth Development in Settings: A Community Action Framework. Youth Development Strategies, Inc.

O'Donoghue, Kirshner, & McLaughlin. (2006). "Youth Participation: From Myths to Effective Practice," The Prevention Researcher.

Innovation Center for Community and Youth Involvement & National 4-H Council. (2001). Building Community: A Tool Kit for Youth & Adults in Charting Assets and Creating Change. p. 20.

Sanacore, J. (2006). Teacher-librarians, teachers, and children as cobuilders of school library collections. Teacher Librarian, 33, 24-29.

New York State 4-H Camping Program and Sally Crosiar. (2003). Youth Developmental Foundations for 4-H Camp Staff. Cornell Cooperative Extension. Hamden, NY.

The Innovation Center. (2003). Youth-Adult Partnerships: A Training Manual. The Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, National Network for Youth, Youth Leadership Institute. Chevy Chase, MD.

Zeldin, S., et al. (2000). Youth in Decision-Making. University of Wisconsin: National 4-H Council. p. 1.

Schaumleffel, N.A. and Payne, L.L. (October, 2006). An examination of program leaders' intention to process recreation experiences to achieve targeted outcomes: An application of the theory of planned behavior. Paper presented at National Recreation and Park Association—Leisure Research Symposium (Seattle).

O'Donoghue, J.; Kirshner, B.; and McLaughlin, M. (2006). Youth Participation: From Myths to Effective Practice. The Prevention Researcher, 13, pp. 3-6.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D.,A.B.P.P., is a board certified clinical psychologist. He is the creator of Leadership Essentials, online video training modules available at ExpertOnlineTraining.com, and a DVD-CD set entitled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, available from the ACA Bookstore. To learn more, visit CampSpirit.com or e-mail chris@campspirit.com.

Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.