Program Quality at Camp: An Interview with the Director of Mountain Camp

June 24, 2019
Rob Warner
Campers sitting on hammocks

Hey everyone!

Summer is finally here! This is the time of year campers and staff have been looking forward to since they left last summer with their new friendships and lots of unforgettable experiences. We all know the impact summer camp can have on the youth who attend. Campers’ smiles tell us they had a wonderful time, and our end-of-session evaluations help tell the story of what they learned. While these measures of success can tell us quite a bit, they don’t necessarily point to the quality of our programs. In similar ways to the other kinds of evaluations we do at camp, program quality assessments can help us learn about what we’re doing well and how to improve so that camp continues to be a place that offers life-changing experiences.

Adding another thing to the to-do list during the summer season seems like a crazy idea — after all, there are only so many hours in the day and so many people to make it all happen. So by now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “What is this program quality thing all about? Is it really worth it?”

To help me tell the story of why program quality assessment (PQA) at camp is worth it, I interviewed Don Whipple, a long-time camp professional, director at Mountain Camp, and champion of program quality work at camp. Throughout my conversation with Don, it became very apparent to me that making time for program quality assessment is really important to Mountain Camp. Don told me it is a top priority for him each summer and that he thinks it should be for all camps. Here are some highlights from my conversation with him.


How did Mountain Camp first get started doing program quality assessment?

For a lot of us, when we first got it into it, camp was a wonderful place for children, but we never had any evidence and didn’t know why it was so wonderful. It seemed like a lot of what was great about camp was happening despite our inability to know why. Parents’ expectations about camp doing all these different things weren’t there in the beginning. Then as ACA started doing more work to understand what kids learn at camp, both parents and camps began to have different expectations about kids’ camp experience. These changes ultimately left us needing to figure out how camp works so we could improve what we do. We started to realize camp’s capacity, which really started to challenge us to do more — that's when we began doing program quality work.


How has doing program quality work helped improve Mountain Camp?

Doing program quality work at Mountain Camp has helped us realize what we’re doing well and what we could do even better. We’ve realized things about our programming that we didn’t even know impacted campers’ experiences. Program quality assessment gave us the ability to look at certain areas of our programs with a lens that helped demystify what makes an activity successful — putting it under a microscope helped us supercharge those activities. For example, we learned about how important transitions in and out of activities can be and how we could implement small changes that could have a huge impact. Program quality work has also been important for training our staff. It’s helped us teach them the language they need to know, where they should be and what they should be doing when. It’s helped us teach them how to create the possibility for a successful activity.


What is the value of doing program quality work?

Program quality assessment allowed us to learn more about our programs and become better at delivering the skills we feel are most important for kids to learn at camp. It’s a specific, targeted way to improve in the ways we value the most. There’s not a doubt in my mind that doing program quality work has helped us better train our staff, as well as educate our families about the value of camp. But ultimately, the real value of program quality assessment is improving the kids’ experiences, and we could see this work was making them better.


Hearing the passion in Don’s voice as he told me about his experiences doing program quality work at camp makes me excited to be doing this work, too. My interview with Don was part of a more extensive study ACA’s research team is doing this summer to understand how camps use PQA tools in their camps. Throughout the summer, we will be collecting data from five camps using a new program quality tool this summer to learn more about how ACA can best support camps’ use of this new PQA tool. Stay tuned for more exciting details as we start to learn more over the next few months. Until then, check out these resources to learn more about program quality assessment at camp!


Rob Warner, a research assistant for ACA, is a doctoral student at the University of Utah and has worked in the youth development field for a variety of organizations as a counselor, field instructor, and mentor.

Photo Courtesy of Mountain Camp in Lafayette, CA.

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