Community as the Foundation for Camp Program Quality

June 22, 2020
Laurie Browne, PhD

Hello camp friends!

It’s been a little while since we’ve updated you on ACA research.  Like you, research is in the toss-and-turn of all the big and important events shaping our world right now — some of our projects are on pause, and others are evolving to capture all that we can about COVID-19 and its effects on camps, campers, staff, and families.  Most critical are our efforts to understand how camps can ensure all of the campers they serve have equitable access to their programs, whether those programs are in-person, virtual, or paused until 2021.  The Black Lives Matter movement is making it even more clear that camps should not only be accessible to all, but also serve as contexts of safe, supportive, and culturally empowering experiences.

One project that we are particularly excited to see move forward is the Camp Program Quality Initiative. With the generous support of our funding partner, we are embarking on a journey that began over a decade ago.  In 2009, ACA collaborated with David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality to develop the Camp Program Quality Assessment tool. A short form and staff training checklist based on the CPQA have since been freely available on the ACA website.  But since 2009, we’ve learned that program quality is a complex process that requires more than tools alone.

This project focuses on systems — like networks of camp professionals and learning resources — because program quality is complex and requires significant buy-in and support from staff at all levels. 

Program quality refers to the intentional practices, activities, and climate facilitated by camp staff. High-quality programs contribute to positive developmental outcomes for youth. Program quality has been discussed in more detail here, with a list of program quality resources here, and assessment tools here.

The systems we are exploring in this project fall into the three broad buckets described below.

Community of Practice

Community of practice (CoP) is a group of people, typically co-workers or professionals, who gather in some way to learn from each other and progress their knowledge in a certain topic area. The concept of CoP has been around for many years and is evident in early society (i.e. trade communities in ancient times), and has been studied in business (e.g. Chrysler: Wegner & Snyder, 2000), healthcare (Gobby, 2009), education, and out-of-school-time programs (Hall, DeSouza, Starr, Wheeler, & Schleyer, 2020; Shanahan & Sheehan, 2020).

There are various models of CoP; however, for this project, we are basing our work on the Wegner-Traynor model (Wegner, 2011). This model highlights three parts:

  • The Domain: the shared interest, passion, or thing that they do (in this case, camp!)
  • The Community: the group of people that interact and learn together (in this case, day and overnight camp professionals)
  • The Practice: the community members are practitioners in the domain (in this case, the practice is improving program quality)

Camp professionals who are asked to be a part of the CoP will work together to share ideas and best practices related to program quality and continuous program improvement. 

We never imagined when we proposed this project that we would be in a pandemic and in the midst of a historic movement for social justice.  At one point, we considered pausing the project all together, but quickly learned from talking with camp professionals what an opportunity we had to gather as a community during these difficult times.  We also acknowledged that program quality is fundamentally about relationships, and the CoP could be a time and space to cultivate relationships, even if we opened the space to include discussion on the most pressing issues facing camps.

Toolkit for Program Quality Assessment & Continuous Improvement

This toolkit aims to support intentional program design and continuous quality improvement, as well as improve camp experiences for all young people. The toolkit will be developed for a variety of audiences, including camp directors/administrators, program directors, frontline staff, marketers and board members, university/college instructors and internship coordinators, and other out-of-school time professionals.

This toolkit will have a variety of accessible components, including a workbook that blends content and interactive exercises. It will be infused with real life program quality experiences and examples. Other components in this toolkit will include webinars and live trainings, targeted companion resources, and supports related to the program quality observation training, which is the third bucket in the project.

Observer-Coach Training

This project is in partnership with the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality at the Forum for Youth Investment. The Weikart Center trains professionals to observe programs in action, assess based on research-based indicators of program quality, and then work one-on-one with the program to coach them toward program improvements.

In this project, we will test this training system on a very small scale.  Most important will be the specific needs of camp professionals, and their needs right now, in the midst of the most disruptive summer in camp history. In light of the pandemic, we will also consider program quality in virtual spaces, and program quality in traditional programming where campers and staff are wearing masks, distancing, and other things that will all be part of our new normal.

Stay tuned as we continue on this journey.  In future posts, we will share with you more about our Community of Practice, our other project partners, and everything we are learning along the way.  Until then, camp on!

Photo courtesy of R.M. Pyles Boys Camp in Valencia, California