Research 360: Promising Themes from Phase 1 of the 5-Year Impact Study

January 29, 2018
Laurie Browne, PhD

It’s been nearly 18 months since I first wrote about Research 360, ACA’s strategic focus on research and evaluation, and the Impact Study, the ground-breaking project at the heart of that focus. In that time, I’ve described the research process and the all-volunteer advisory group tasked with ensuring the results are relevant, rigorous, and believable. I’ve also described that some of the lessons we learned in the first year, including the fact that doing research in camps is not easy, but something our industry needs to support our work into the 21st century. A lot has happened since my original blog posts, most notably the completion of Phase 1 of the Impact Study.

Here, in a nutshell, is what we did:

  1. We randomly selected over 35 camps based on their camp type (day or overnight), affiliation, specialty, and geographical location. Twenty-two of those camps agreed to participate, rounding out a sample that represents, proportionately, ACA’s accredited camp population. This process is important because it will allow us to say that the findings that emerge from the study represent the broader ACA-accredited camp experience.
  2. The research team interviewed 64 first-year staff members from these 22 camps about their childhood camp experiences. Why first-year staff? Two reasons. First, we have access to these individuals through our ACA-accredited camps; finding people who attended camp as a kid in the general population is more difficult. The second reason the research team interviewed first-year staff is because these are individuals who likely had an impactful camp experience as a child, which is why they chose to work at camp. Also important is the notion that first-year staff are of an age and developmental level when they are more likely to recognize and articulate what they got out of their camp experience, especially how their camp experiences are now affecting how they navigate school, first jobs, and their emerging adult lives.
  3. From these interviews, the research team identified emergent themes related to the distinct and transferable outcomes of the camp experience. Distinct means that the outcomes the interviewees described were unique to camp; they were things they learned at camp that they did not necessarily learn, or learn in the same way, as in other contexts. Transferrable means that the outcomes not only lasted over time, but the interviewees were using what they learned at camp in positive ways in school, at work, and in their lives. Finally, the research team identified which of these outcomes applied most directly to school and work, which, for many of the participants meant pre- or early college and entry-level jobs, such as working at a coffee shop.
  4. Finally, the research team presented these themes to the Research Advisory Committee at an in-person meeting in October 2017. The Committee discussed the research methods and what happened during the research process that might have impacted the findings. This is a critical step to ensuring the findings accurately represent what the participants said, and to prevent the themes I describe below from being seen as anything other than emerging themes, not conclusive results or fact.

The best way to think about Phase 1 is as an exploratory step in a three-phase project. By starting with an open-ended exploration such as this, the research team can identify what young people are realistically learning at camp and then using later in life, rather than making assumptions that may or may not be accurate. This step also allows the team to build Phases 2 and 3 off of these real-life outcomes, meaning these themes are just the first part of a much larger set of findings. All of this is to say that we can be excited about these themes, but we need to remember that they are themes (not conclusive results) and they are preliminary (the first in a series of Impact Study findings).

Promising themes from Phase 1:

  1. Camp appears to be a key context for developing relationship skills. This is consistent with past research on camp, but Phase 1 findings suggest that the relationship skills young people gain at camp might play a role beyond the camp experience.
  2. As a context for developing relationship skills, preliminary findings suggest that camp is an integral part of a young person’s overall learning, alongside school and other educational contexts.
  3. Camp is a unique learning experience that appears to promote skills transferable to 21st century school and work contexts.
  4. Preliminary findings suggest that camp is a safe place for young people to explore who they are and how they want to be viewed by others.
  5. Camp gives campers the opportunity to practice being around and appreciating people with attitudes, values, and abilities different from their own.
  6. Phase 1 themes suggest that ACA-accredited camps promote camper outcomes through robust programmatic structures and processes distinct from other youth development experiences. These include:
    1. Prioritizing experiential learning in structured activities and during unstructured time;
    2. Meaningful interactions with caring, compassionate staff who serve as teachers and facilitators, and possibly near-peer role models;
    3. Small group experiences;
    4. Among overnight camps, communal living that is away from home.

What’s Next?

Phases 2 and 3 are already underway, as well as a new expansion to the Impact Study that explores camp staff development over time. Like Phase 1, we will randomly select camps to participate in early Spring 2018 and ask them to send an online survey to their first-year staff (Phase 2), and identify a small set of campers to join a cohort of 500 campers (and their families!) across the country who will participate in surveys and interviews multiple times a year for three years (Phase 3). The research team will also recruit a cohort of first-year staff from ACA-accredited camps across the country to participate in the 5-year staff study.

What Can You Do?

We all know that the best parts of camp are when the entire camp community engages wholeheartedly, and the same goes for camp research. We cannot do the research the industry needs to support our work without the participation of a wide variety of camps and the campers and staff these camps select. For our results to be rigorous and reliable, we must sample camps randomly (instead of taking volunteers). So, the most important thing you can do is to agree to participate if your camp is selected. The research team is very aware of the many, many things camp professionals have on their plates, especially in spring, and have made the process as quick and simple as possible.

Other ways to get involved:

  • Read camp research, which includes Impact Study findings as they emerge in addition to an incredible number of camp-specific studies available through the ACA Camp Research Forum and scientific journals, such as the Journal of Youth Development (look for an upcoming special issue all about camp!).
  • Use camp research to market your programs, train your staff, and improve your programs — and be proud that you are part of an industry for which there is strong evidence that our work matters, both now and throughout campers’ lives.
  • Conduct research at your camp, either in the form of program evaluation or using a scientific approach, possibly even in partnership with a local college or university.
  • Stay engaged with the Research 360 blog! We write a new post about camp research and evaluation twice a month, all of which are free on the ACA website and linked through your ACA Now online e-newsletter.
  • Check out our new video, and share it with your camp community!

Finally, you can learn more about the Impact Study at both the ACA National Conference and the TriState Camp Conference—stop by and say hi!

Laurie Browne, PhD, is the director of research at ACA. She specializes in ACA's Youth Outcomes Battery and supporting camps in their research and evaluation efforts. Prior to joining ACA, Laurie was an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management at California State University-Chico.  Laurie received her Ph.D. from the University of Utah, where she studied youth development and research methods.

Photo courtesy of Camp DeWolfe in Wading River, New York

Thanks to our research partner, Redwoods.


Additional thanks goes to our research supporter, Chaco


I came upon your website because I was researching activities to help children understand the lunar eclipse. The following are my ideas, questions and general comments. Keep in mind that I have not yet read the impact study findings. 1. First, I had to stop and find out what ACA was. That was a waste of time and should have been defined in the opening paragraphs. 2. I am a successful adult whose working parents made a level of money that allowed me to participate in anti poverty programs. They like this program appear to miss one very important point; No matter what program in which you participate, home is the major impact toward determining your future. finally, 3. No matter that I am pessimistic, any program that may help American youth is worth my reading, following and if given the opportunity, helping. So bonne chance.

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