I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a camp staff member who didn’t have a great story about a transformational experience that happened to some child at their camp. The shy camper that blossomed in a supportive environment, the child that took six tries before they could finally step off the zip line platform, the sullen teen on the fringe of the group who returned from a wilderness trip enthused by newfound respect and independence. We all have those stories. What many of us do not have is the evidence back these stories up. In today’s data-driven world, the public (including parents and donors) expect us to have the evidence of these outcomes in hand as we share our stories.

After the National Outcomes study (ACA 2006) was completed, directors wanted simple, customizable measures for select outcomes common to the camp experience that contribute to positive youth development. The Not-For-Profit Council financially supported most of the development of the ACA Youth Outcomes Battery. So let me give you the skinny on the YOB details:

  • Eleven outcomes can be measured: friendship skills, exploration, independence, problem-solving confidence, family citizenship, responsibility, affinity for nature, perceived competence, spiritual well-being, camp connectedness, teamwork.
  • Two formats for each outcome answer the two most common questions from directors:
    • Basic (change format) answers the question: Does the young person think they increased on some outcome by the end of the program?
    • Detailed (status + change) answers the question: In general, how good does the young person think they are on some outcome, and how much of that do they attribute to their time in your program?
  • Simple, short measures (5 to 13 questions for each outcome) suitable for young people 9 and older given at the end of your program
  • Measures can be mixed and matched to fit your mission.
  • Reliable and valid measures result in accurate data you can trust.
  • Norms were created so you can benchmark your results against a general standard.
  • Equivalent observation versions exist for staff and parents.
  • The new online YOB 2.0 basic version was just released, including data collected with iPads/tablets and automatic statistical reports generated immediately.

So how do you go about documenting your outcomes? Successful camps usually follow a couple of key guidelines:

  • Start small!
    • Measure 1-2 outcomes that tie directly to your mission and goals
    • Collect data from a smaller subset of your participants- maybe just one unit or maybe one session- you don’t need to measure every single camper!
  • Have a staff person (or you) be “in charge” of your evaluation efforts- if it’s someone’s job, you will end up with data collected and results to use.
  • Make a plan! Include the basics in your plan:
    • Identify your targeted outcome(s)
    • Be intentional in your programs and train your staff to think how they can contribute to that outcome in their job.
    • Select good measures like the ACA YOB (reliable and valid) that are reasonable for your kids to complete.
    • Be clear in how you plan to collect your data and analyze them.
    • Be ready for the fact that not all of your results may be positive and not every child will have a positive view of their experience in your program- but be open to the opportunity to learn something new and explore how this information can help you improve.
    • Identify specific ways you plan to share and use the results (program improvement, staff training, marketing messages, etc).
  • Commit to at least 2-3 years of evaluation effort- and know that hiccups will always happen!

Many of us view evaluation as a form of accountability— funders demand outcomes evidence to keep our grants, parents want to know their children have gained from the experience you offered, and you want to know your program is performing as you expect. However, I would suggest a slight shift to a more contemporary definition of “evaluation for learning” where what we learn about outcomes can be used to improve our programs, our staff training and performance, and our ability to tell our own stories with compelling data to back it up.

Measuring outcomes is not rocket science, but it does take planning, commitment, and a positive attitude. Find some other outcomes advocates like colleagues in the Raise the Bar group who can offer support, resources, and suggestions as you build your outcomes evaluation efforts. Then, like the Nike ad says, Just Do It!

M. Deborah "Deb" Bialeschki, PhD, is the director of research and chair of the Professional Development Center for the American Camp Association and professor emeritus from the University of Carolina- Chapel Hill. Deb's research interests include youth development, the value of outdoor experiences, gender perspectives, program improvement, and staff training. She loves the outdoors, time with friends, including four legged, furry ones), and well-toasted s'mores. 

Photo courtesy of Golden Arrow Camp in Clovis, CA.