5-Year Impact Study Phase 2 Findings: Appreciating Differences

November 2019
3 campers collage

ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study entered its third and final phase in fall 2018. This means that we are well on our way to understanding the lasting impacts of camp and how camp experiences prepare young people for their college, career, and adult lives. By the time you read this, we will have data from current campers and their parents or caregivers, former campers, new staff, and staff who have worked at camp for several years, all of which helps tell a story not only of the benefits of attending camp, but the specific ways camp experiences foster these outcomes. 

Each phase of the study has built on the previous phase. In Phase 1, we asked former campers to describe what they learned at camp and how they are using what they learned in their lives outside of camp. Some told us about the friends they made and how this experience helped them as they set out to make new friends in college. Others described the value of trying new things, especially things that were challenging or involved working with others, which helped later in new jobs or challenging adult situations. From the 64 interviews we conducted with former campers, we identified common themes that we call the distinct and transferable outcomes of camp. Distinct means that participants told us these were things they learned at camp that they did not learn in the same way in school or other settings. Transferable means they were outcomes that not only lasted over time, but which former campers applied to new situations, such as college or early jobs.

Phase 2 tested these outcomes with a larger sample of former campers, some of whom were working at camp at the time of the study and others who were not connected to camp at all. More than five hundred 18- to 25-year-olds completed a survey in which they were asked to identify:

  • The most distinct and transferable outcomes of camp
  • How they use those outcomes now in their young adult lives
  • What specifically at camp helped them learn these lasting and useful skills

We also asked former campers who attended specific types of camp — Girl Scout camps, mainline Christian camps, etc. — the same questions to see if these outcomes varied across different camp models.

From that survey the research team identified a set of outcomes that are unique to camp (distinct) and highly transferable to settings like college and early jobs. This article is the final installment of a series that explores four of those outcomes: responsibility and independence, relationship skills, being present, and, now, appreciating differences. Throughout the series, we have explored each concept and how it relates to the larger framework of social-emotional learning. We also asked camp professionals to describe in their own words what that outcome looks like at their camp and what they do to support campers’ lasting learning. And each article ends with suggestions for practice; specifically, ideas for staff training and program design that you can use at your own camp.

But first, a recap of important background information on ACA’s 5-year Impact Study:

  • ACA’s Board of Directors approved and funded the multiyear study with a specific interest in the lasting impacts of camp, what happens at camp to foster lasting impacts, and how these impacts support young people in college, in their early careers, and as they move into adulthood. With support from the ACA, New York and New Jersey affiliate, we are also exploring these questions with camp staff.
  • The study is being conducted by a research team at the University of Utah under the direction of an all-volunteer advisory committee. Working with a university-based research team ensures our findings are reliable and vetted by the peer-review process. 
  • Study participants include camp alumni, camp staff, current campers, parents, and older campers/counselors-in-training from ACA-accredited camps that represent different camp types (overnight and day camps), clientele, programmatic focus, and regional locations to represent diverse socioeconomic, racial or ethnic, gender, and ability characteristics.

Appreciating Differences

The research team chose the term appreciating differences to represent one of the strongest themes that emerged from the initial exploratory interviews with former campers. In these interviews, participants described their childhood camp experiences as opportunities to be around kids who came from different schools, states, and countries, with different backgrounds, beliefs, abilities, and skills. The former campers we spoke with described not only the value in being around kids who were different from them, but also the ways those interactions led to a sense of appreciation for individual differences in general. Later in life, appreciating differences helped former campers as they entered college and new jobs where they had to work closely with people very different than themselves.

Like many of the outcomes we’ve explored in this series, appreciating differences is a concept that is difficult to define (see Wilson, Akiva, Sibthorp, & Browne, 2019, for the academic article explaining these outcomes and the scientific methods they used). Is appreciating differences a skill? A belief? A mindset? It likely depends on the individual, and, for most people, it is probably both a belief and a skill, depending on how the belief is used to navigate relationships throughout a person’s life. An appreciation for something or someone suggests that an individual believes that thing or person is important and valued, so appreciating differences must be, at some level, a belief that a young person gains over time. Differences, of course, represents all the ways that people are unique and assumes that every single person is different from one another.

A fair bit of developmental psychology suggests that children notice individual differences very early in life. It is only through the socialization process that they begin to assign judgment to some differences, perhaps even forming prejudices toward groups of people with certain characteristics. By the time children attend camp, they likely have a fairly robust set of beliefs based on past experiences with their family, in school, and in their communities. For some, camp might be the first time they interact with kids their age whose experiences are very different from their own. Russell-Chaplin (2017) describes opportunities to interact with different people as “activating events.”

At camp, an activating event might be a cabin or small group of campers that spends a lot of time together, maybe even engaging in intentional team-oriented activities like a challenge course or wilderness trip. When these small groups include campers from different backgrounds, the group members are likely to notice those differences, which is the first step toward developing an appreciation for differences. From awareness, campers move toward appreciating differences through meaningful interactions and role modeling from camp staff, which can be used as a skill when a person actively engages this belief to help navigate social interactions. The ultimate goal to Russell-Chaplin (2017) is to move beyond awareness and tolerance to a place of deep belief in the value of individual differences, and for this belief to become the basis of a person’s actions and behaviors.

Appreciating Differences and Social-Emotional Learning

Throughout this series we have used CASEL’s framework for social and emotional learning (SEL) as a way to understand the findings of the 5-Year Impact Study. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making are all part of what CASEL considers core competencies for social-emotional learning (see casel.org/ what-is-sel/). Our findings to date suggest that the most distinct and transferable outcomes of camp are represented in this framework, which means that camp experiences are valuable contexts for social and emotional learning in general, and for the development of an appreciation for differences in particular.

But what happens at camp that supports campers as they develop an appreciation for individual differences? We asked this question in Phase 2 of the study, and the results were not surprising. Participants said interacting with different kinds of people helped them gain an appreciation for individual differences. These results point to something that camps do that is unique from other settings — meaningful interactions with others.

Researchers explored this notion of meaningful interaction as a way to develop an appreciation for individual differences through the lens of challenge course initiatives (Seaman, Beightol, Shirilla, & Crawford, 2009). More specifically, this study looked at the effects that the conditions of contact theory (equal status, cooperation, common goals, and support from authority) had on participants’ acceptance of diversity. The results of this study suggested that when challenge course experiences were intentionally designed to meet these conditions, participants from different racial and ethnic backgrounds reported a greater acceptance of diversity.

What Appreciating Differences Looks Like at Camp

We turned to representatives from camps that participated in various phases of the 5-Year Impact Study. We asked willing writers to tell us about what relationship skills, responsibility and independence, being present in the moment, and appreciating differences looks like at their camp. In this final article in the series we have a special treat — in addition to a rich description from Robert Gil, Jr. about appreciating differences at Princeton-Blairstown Center, three staff members from Sherwood Forest describe what this outcome looks like at their camp.

Princeton-Blairstown Center, Princeton, New Jersey — Written by Roberto Gil, Former Director of Programs 

At Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), we have a deep appreciation for diversity, and it begins with the young people we serve. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve young people from under-resourced communities with our unique mix of adventure and experiential and environmental education focused on social-emotional learning. Our award-winning Summer Bridge program brings participants from Newark and Trenton, New Jersey, to our “campus in the woods” in Hardwick, NJ. During our off-season, we have the privilege of working with an even wider array of young people from some of the best independent schools across the county to colleges and universities in the NY/NJ/PA Tri-State area, as well as students from New York City and the urban centers of New Jersey.

Understanding the diverse nature of our participants, PBC has to appreciate and celebrate that diversity. As the director of programs, I have worked hard to create a program team that resembles our young people for two main reasons. First, I strongly believe it is important for young people to see themselves in the adults they interact with. Second, and more importantly, it is key for young people to see a diverse group of adults working together successfully, as we role model what the world outside of their schools and neighborhoods may look like. Once you get past your own neighborhood, whether that be a Spanish-speaking community in Trenton, NJ, or a tree-lined community in Greenwich, Connecticut, the world outside our doors is becoming increasingly multicultural, and to be successful our young men and women need to know how to navigate in such a society. Places like PBC and camps around this country are perfect places to practice these valuable skills.

It is not always easy. Participants and staff alike are often comfortable with the status quo. Even in cities as diverse as New York City, students from inner-city neighborhoods often do not leave their immediate surroundings. So while they may live in one of, if not the most, diverse cities in the world, they are surrounded by people who look, talk, and behave like them. Our goal is to help them have conversations with others, to share their own experiences and stories.

A few years ago, we decided to train all of our staff on how to lead diversity and inclusion workshops. At the time, more than half of the team were straight, white men. They shared their concern about leading these conversations. However, by the time we finished several weeks of training, they realized that so many of the diversity and inclusion activities were about sharing individual stories, which closely correlated to our team-building work with young people. It was this “a-ha moment” that has helped PBC move in a direction where the entire team is comfortable with diversity and inclusion work.

Sherwood Forest, St. Louis, Missouri — Written by Melanie Scott, Counselor and Lifeguard; J’nayh Elbert, Counselor; Miette O’malley, Counselor

Here at Sherwood Forest Camp we encourage and celebrate individual differences for our campers and our staff. From the start to the finish of each session, there are opportunities for our camp family to find their interests or explore others’. Our program offers five different departments in which there are a variety of activities campers can choose.

Sherwood Forest is allowing people to come join the team no matter their background. No matter the socio-economic background, Sherwood Forest is there to fill the void of each camper. The voids we fill don’t only go to people close to camp; we expand to individuals overseas, giving them the opportunity to teach and learn the differences of both cultures. Adding different meals from different cultures also gives our family a taste of differences.

Sherwood Forest is a safe space and is very open to any gender identity. This includes gender identity, sexuality, etc. We encourage the Sherwood Forest family to embrace who they are and what they like. We have several evening activities including the Sherwood Forest Camp “Drag Show.” This lets kids be more open to and accepting of different gender roles. The activity also shows that any gender is no less capable than another. We always say that Sherwood Forest is our home away from home because no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you believe, you’ll always be part of our family!

Appreciating Differences at Your Camp

Teaching campers to appreciate individual differences is, in many ways, one of the things that comes most naturally during camp experiences. Spending meaningful time with people who are different — from different backgrounds, beliefs, places, abilities, identities, etc. — creates powerful opportunities to become aware of all the amazing and important ways people are different. But how can we take that a step further? How can we use what happens so naturally in many camp experiences to foster a sense of appreciation for differences, an attitude and a skill that campers can use as they navigate relationships in school and throughout their lives? Here are a few practical ideas:

  •  Examine your policy around cabin or group requests. If you allow campers to request multiple friends and typically arrange groups so that requests can be accommodated, consider the ways this might prevent campers from interacting meaningfully with campers who are different from them. This is a sensitive policy area at a lot of camps, so consider engaging a group of older campers or alumni to help explore if and how you can address policies that prevent campers from interacting with campers they do not know.
  • Group goals are a powerful way to facilitate meaningful interactions. Look for opportunities to brainstorm and set goals in small groups. Safe and healthy competition between small groups (cabin clean up, anyone?) can be a great way to strengthen the small group and foster a sense of appreciation for all the different people in that group.
  • Be proud of your support for diversity. Adding diversity and inclusion to your camp’s core values, in addition to other efforts to demonstrate the value you place on diversity, sets an example for staff and campers alike. Making the appreciation of diversity a more frontand- center aspect of your camp can improve everyone’s experience.

Want to engage campers and staff in activities about appreciating differences but not sure how? Check out these websites for a variety of resources to get you started.

  • socialjusticetoolbox.com
  • edchange.org/multicultural/activityarch.html
  • tolerance.org



  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2019). Core competencies. CASEL. Retrieved from casel.org/core-competencies/
  • Russell-Chapin, L. (2017, February 16). How do we learn to appreciate each other’s differences? Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brainwaves/201702/how-do-we-learn-appreciate-eachothers-differences
  • Seaman, J., Beightol, J., Shirilla, P., & Crawford, B. (2009). Contact theory as a framework for experiential activities as diversity education: An exploratory study. Journal of Experiential Education, 32(3), 207–225.
  • Wilson, C., Akiva, T., Sibthorp, A., Browne, L. P. (2019). Fostering distinct and transferable learning via summer camp. Children and Youth Services, 98(2019), 269–277.

Laurie Browne, PhD, is ACA’s director of research. 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 PhD from the University of Utah, where she studied youth development and research methods.

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.