Developing Resilience in Girls through Camp Experiences

Anja Whittington, PhD
Jeffrey Aspelmeier, PhD
November 2017

Girls today face a diverse range of challenges that can negatively affect their development. According to a recent report by the Girl Scouts of the USA (2013), such challenges include increased poverty rates and homelessness, physical violence (rape and sexual assault), low self-esteem and body image, bullying or aggression, lack of leadership opportunities, and feelings of depression and suicide. One way to help girls navigate these challenges is to provide opportunities to develop resilience skills. Camps may provide the space needed to effectively promote resilience and support positive development for girls.

Understanding Resilience in Girls

Broadly defined, adolescent resilience reflects a process and ability to negotiate and successfully cope with risks, challenges, and/or disadvantages without long-term negative outcomes (Ahern, 2006). A resilient youth has a set of characteristics (i.e., self-esteem, hopefulness, ability to deal with stress, social competence, problem-solving, autonomy) that can be shaped and developed through effective programming (Cooper, Estes, & Allen, 2004). Research on girls' development suggests that in addition to the broader description of resilience, girls' resilience is strengthened when they have significant and positive relationships with others (Debold, Brown, Weseen, & Brookins, 2006; Jordan, 2012). Positive relationships with others allow girls to encourage one another; aid in the development of self-esteem, feelings of worth, strength, and creativity; and promote the development of courage and confidence to maintain one's voice (Debold, Brown, Weseen, & Brookins, 2006; Jordan, 2012).

How Camp Promotes Resilience

Research indicates that the camp experience can provide youth with an opportunity to gain resilience skills. A professor of social work as well as Scientific Director of the Resilience Research Centre, Michael Ungar, PhD (2012), posits that camps promote resilience in youth by shaping the environment around them, fostering new relationships with peers and trusted adults, helping youth feel in control of their lives, supporting young people as they develop physically, offering opportunities to feel like they belong, and learning more about their culture. Haber (2014) further suggests that camps help children develop resilience skills through failing and learning from failure, helping kids understand their strengths and weaknesses, promoting hard work and effort, building self-esteem and confidence, encouraging children to pursue their passions, teaching inclusive not exclusive behaviors, developing problem-solving skills, teaching children to follow rules, and encouraging optimism and positive thinking.

Studying Camp's Impact

Research specific to girls and how camp impacts girls' resilience is limited, therefore the purpose of the study discussed here was to examine the benefits of summer camp on girls' resilience. This included exploring whether:

  • Girls' resilience increased after participating in a camp experience
  • Specific characteristics of resilience (approach to challenge, self-efficacy, relationship building) had a greater or lesser impact
  • Program type (traditional camp setting or mixed camp setting), length of program, and camper's age impacted resilience-related outcomes

Four hundred and seventy-six girls from six different residential camp programs in Massachusetts, Colorado, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri participated in this study. Camps were recruited with the help of the American Camp Association (ACA) and included ACA-accredited camps that offered all-female programming. The age range of the campers was ten–17 with a mean age of 12. Camps ranged in duration between four and 49 days (mean duration = 19). The camps were further asked to identify their camp as traditional or mixed-style programming. Three camps designated themselves as traditional programming (N = 228) and three identified themselves as offering mixed programming (N = 248). Mixed camp programs were defined as such because they offered wilderness trips (i.e., overnight backpacking/canoeing trips), adventure activities (i.e., ropes courses), and/or experiential education activities (i.e., environmental education).

This study was conducted using the Adolescent Girls Resilience Scale (AGRS; Whittington, Aspelmeier, & Budbill, 2015), a self-report measure developed to assess perceptions of characteristics predicting girls' resilience amenable to change through camps and camp-like settings. Respondents rated 33 statements using a five-point scale of agreement, which were averaged to form a total resilience score as well as scores for three subscales (approach to challenge, self-efficacy, and relationship building; see Table 1). Approach to challenge included ten items that reflect the degree to which girls view challenge positively, respond positively to stressful situations, feel brave and courageous, show persistence, and are flexible when problem solving. Self-efficacy included 12 items reflecting the degree to which girls believe they are capable and feel they have the ability and motivation to complete tasks and reach goals. Relationship building included 11 items reflecting the degree to which girls form positive relationships with others, successfully negotiate conflicts in relationships, and feel comfortable with and supported by other girls. The subscales of the AGRS have consistently shown adequate to high levels of internal consistency that range between .77 and .92 in previous studies (Aspelmeier, Whittington, & Budbill, 2015) and .71 and .90 in this study.

Girls, ten years of age or older for whom parental consent and child assent were obtained, completed the AGRS on the first day of their camp experience (N = 706) and then on the last day (N = 476). Complete post-participation data was obtained from 67.4 percent of the campers who provided pre-participation data. Data were collected by camp staff who were given written directions on how to administer the measures.

Table 1

Results and Discussion

Across the six camps, girls' self-reported resilience showed a small but significant increase after participating in a camp program across all four scales (approach to challenge, self-efficacy, relationship building, and total resilience; see Table 2). All of the changes were statistically significant, meaning the observed changes were systematic and not likely due to chance. However, some of the changes appear to be more meaningful than others. The increase in relationship building was small and considered trivial by most standards (Cohen, 1988). However, the increases in approach to challenge and self-efficacy were potentially the most meaningful given that dispositional characteristics like these have developed over a lifetime and are relatively slow to change. Additional analyses were conducted to determine whether the observed changes in resilience were dependent on other factors including: program type (traditional versus mixed camp setting), program length, and campers' ages. A series of mixed model (within subjects and between subjects) factorial analyses of variances were conducted to separately evaluate the influence of each factor.A summary of the findings follows:

  1. Girls' overall resilience did not significantly differ across program type. Therefore, type of program (traditional or mixed camp setting) did not impact the results.
  2. Change in self-efficacy differed for camps based on program length (see Figure 1). At the end of camp, girls in 15- to 28-day programs showed a greater improvement in their self-efficacy than girls participating in shorter programs. There were no significant differences in regards to approach to challenge and relationship building based on program length.
  3. Change in approach to challenge differed based on the girls' age (see Figure 2). Girls in the 14 to 15 and 16 to 17 age groups reported that their approach to challenge substantially improved between the start and end of camp. Girls in the ten to 11 and 12 to 13 age ranges reported only modest changes. There were no significant differences in self-efficacy or relationship building in regards to age.

Table 2

Figure 1

Figure 2

Implications for Camp

The results of this study indicate that girls who attended camp reported increased resilience after their participation. Of the changes, relationship building saw the smallest change. Research on girls' development suggests that positive relationships with other girls helps to strengthen and improve girls' resilience (Debold, Brown, Weseen, & Brookins, 2006; Jordan, 2012). Simply bringing girls together does not promote relationship building, and intentional strategies must be incorporated to improve girls' relationships. Relational aggression can impact girls' programming (Ditter, 2009; Sammet, 2010), and despite goals to develop authentic relationships, some girls resist programmatic interventions and continue to engage in relational aggression (Sammet, 2010). In a previous Camping Magazine article, Bob Ditter (2009) provided a description of the social life of girls at camp and suggested specific interventions to improve relationship building among girls. Camp professionals interested in improving girls' relationships should review this article.

After sharing the results of the present study with participating camps, one camp, Camp Newaygo, incorporated strategies for improving relationship building in girls. Camp staff previously assumed girls came to camp with strong relationship skills and left having developed meaningful relationships. In the year following this study, staff training included strategies to promote relationship building in girls. Using an article on developing interpersonal closeness (Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vallone & Bator, 1997), staff practiced self-disclosure and relationship-building tasks together. They then used these strategies with their campers. One activity included guided discussions between two people to develop meaningful relationships. In this particular case, the results of the study were used to inform and improve program practices and guided staff to make changes.

Practitioners wishing to examine whether their programs support resilience in girls should consider using the AGRS, which is available at The AGRS was specifically developed to be used by professionals working with adolescent girls in program settings (such as camps) and measures resilience characteristics most amenable to change. The AGRS includes a manual that describes data collection methods and an excel spreadsheet that allows practitioners to enter their data and obtain basic analysis. The tool can help practitioners evaluate outcomes and report findings to a broader audience.


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Anja Whittington, PhD, is an associate professor of recreation, parks, and tourism at Radford University. Her research interests include girls' experiences, program evaluation, and the benefits of all-female programs.

Jeffrey Aspelmeier, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences at Radford University.