Program quality (PQ) is essential to youth programs, and research shows that high-quality programs are directly linked to more positive outcomes for youth.

PQ refers to the environment that is created at camp through staff practices. When the camp environment is safe, supportive, interactive, and engaging, participants experience greater PQ. Examples of quality staff practices include modifying activities to suit campers’ needs, prompting learning reflection, and supporting teamwork and social-emotional skill development.

The positive correlation between PQ and outcomes is one of the reasons Tim Hortons Foundation Camps (Tims Camps) has prioritized an organization- wide focus on PQ assessments and a continuous improvement cycle. Through this blog, our upcoming series in Camping Magazine, and a five-part webinar series starting September 27, 2023, we will share with you some of the things we have learned in our PQ journey over the past couple of years and give you insight on how you can also incorporate PQ principles into your own camp or organization.

Why Do We Focus on Program Quality?

At Tims Camps, our mission is to help youth from underserved communities achieve their full potential. We operate seven camp locations across Canada and the United States and serve youth through three different modes of program delivery: summer, school, and partnerships. Our programs are grounded in research and are intentionally designed to foster positive youth development in our campers. Our commitment to quality and continuous improvement of PQ, outcomes and impact is at the heart of everything we do.

We started our PQ journey in 2020 when we realized our previous program measurement strategy and assessment method was not fully meeting our organization's needs. At this time, we began to engage in PQ efforts the American Camp Association (ACA) was leading to understand and consider how to incorporate this focus for our organization. We found that a PQ focus offered a tangible way to ground our programs in research while directly improving how our programs were delivered.

Research and measurement are highly valued at Tims Camps and are fully aligned with our organization’s strategic plan. We approach measurement holistically, measuring not only the outcomes and impact of our programs, but also how we deliver programs using a PQ lens. Together, these data provide a deeper understanding of what we do and how we impact youth in the communities we serve.

At Tims Camps, we strive to continually improve in everything we do. We measure PQ across all our programs and use data to inform changes through following a continuous improvement cycle (prepare, assess, plan, and improve). Since we operate across multiple locations, it has taken intentional effort to help diffuse the concept of PQ organizationally. We have seen variations in uptake and buy-in across our camp locations and are still working to support the camp teams to integrate PQ and continuous improvement into our daily practices at camp. While there have been challenges, our consistent and responsive approach has allowed us to gain traction and make significant progress.

How Have We Assessed Program Quality?

This year, 2023, we are in the midst of our third summer of formally assessing PQ at Tims Camps. We began focusing on PQ initially through our involvement in the ACA community of practice Camp Program Quality Initiative. With support from connections and resources from ACA, we completed our first PQ assessment during our eCamp COVID-19 programming in 2021. During that summer, we were able to engage nine different people in nearly 50 hours of observations of our centralized online program. This included two campers, six Tims Camps staff, and one external observer. During our first summers we quickly learned that if we wanted to continue assessing PQ, there was a need for modified tools that would better suit our staff’s capacity. The need for these modified tools would only increase with in-person operations.

We continued to prioritize quality programming as we returned to camp in-person following the pandemic. During summer of 2022, we reopened to in-person operations and were able to engage staff across seven camp locations as well as two staff from our centralized support team to observe over 100 hours of programming and complete seventy assessments. We used our learnings about diffusing PQ across our organization in 2022 to write and present a research abstract at the ACA National Conference. Check out the ACA National Book of Research Abstracts 2023 (p. 38) to learn more.

Additionally, in 2022 we sought to incorporate youth voice into our PQ assessments. We asked campers to take photos of people, places, and things that they felt represented high-quality components at camp. The information we gained from this data has been invaluable in helping us prepare for the upcoming summer. For example, we have been able to set internal performance management goals based on data related to PQ for our full-time team members, we have been able to develop resources for our camp teams that are targeted to improving PQ, and we have clearer direction on important areas to focus on during our staff training. 

What Have We Learned?

We have learned a lot through our three summers of experience in assessing PQ. We have learned what we are doing well and where we should focus our improvement efforts, but we also have learned about the process of implementing and diffusing a PQ initiative across an organization. There are many challenges and rewards that come along with prioritizing this work. Some challenges were gaining staff buy-in, developing tools that are responsive to staff capacity, and training both full-time and seasonal staff on PQ. But, the benefits of having research-backed approaches to measure the intangible concepts that make camp and camp staff special, having data to clearly articulate what is working well and what isn’t, and bringing consistency to the way we look at and talk about our programs across multiple locations have proved the value of PQ work despite any challenges.  

We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share more about our experiences and what we have learned along the way. Check out our upcoming series in Camping Magazine where we will walk through each phase of the continuous improvement cycle in more detail and share our insights and learnings with you!

The September/October issue will focus on how we prepared to conduct assessments and what observations and scoring looked like in action. Our second article in the November/December issue will discuss how we reflected on the data and learnings, as well as how we implemented actions to improve programs at Tims Camps.

We are also hosting a five-part webinar series to dive deeper into these topics. Register for the first one on September 27.