5-Year Impact Study Phase 2 Findings: Being Present in the Moment

Laurie Browne, PhD, and Rob Warner
September 2019

ACA’s Impact Study is a multiyear research project designed to identify the lasting impacts of camp from the perspectives of campers, staff, and parents. In the earliest stages of the project, we asked former campers, who are now between the ages of 18 and 25 years old, what they learned at camp and how they are using what they learned in their lives today, specifically at school and in their jobs. The research team identified 18 distinct outcomes from these conversations, each of which transfers to school and work in unique ways. We also asked participants to describe what they learned at camp in relation to what they learned in other settings, like school or sports.

This article is the fourth in a five-article series exploring the outcomes that appear to be among the most distinct to camp, meaning participants learned these things in ways that are unique to camp when compared with other settings, and the most transferable to school, work, and life as an emerging adult. The outcomes described in this series also appear to result from different kinds of camp experiences, such as a faith-based camp experience or a camp experience for campers with disability or chronic illness.

Responsibility and independence, relationship skills, appreciation for being present in the moment, and appreciation for individual differences are the outcomes of focus of this series. Each article defines an outcome and discusses its importance for youth today and then invites directors from camps that participated in the Impact Study to describe for us what that particular outcome looks like to them. The focus here is on appreciation for being present in the moment, but before we dive in, let’s review some key features of ACA’s Impact Study:

  • Five-year research project, conducted by the ACA in partnership with a University of Utah research team, focused on the lasting impacts of camp, specifically those related to social-emotional learning (SEL).
  • Three-phase study involving 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.
  • The results so far help reinforce what previous camp research tells us about what people learn at camp and provide further evidence of how these skills are used in college, their careers, and the rest of their lives.

Being Present

Appreciation for being present in the moment is the term the research team selected to describe a theme that emerged from interviews they conducted with former campers at the beginning of the study. The fact that this emerged as a theme among former campers, specifically those between the ages of 18 and 25, is important to note: appreciation for being present in the moment is something they identify as an outcome of camp years after their camp experience. In many cases, participants were in college or early jobs. It’s possible that this outcome is something that people can only truly realize later in life, when their camp experiences contrast with their lives as adults.

Also important to note is that the term appreciation for being present in the moment was selected by the research team to represent a variety of responses in the data. These responses included things like:

  • Feeling grounded and present in the moment, free from worry about the past or future
  • Relaxation and reduced stress and anxiety
  • A sense of slowing down and having fun
  • Feeling connected to others and, in some cases, nature
  • Disconnection from technology

The research team continues to explore these themes in the hopes of better understanding the role of camp in stress reduction, connection to nature, and technology, so it is possible this term will evolve as we learn more. For now, we will focus on being present in the moment and how this concept is related to social-emotional learning.

Being Present in the Moment and Social-Emotional Learning

The concept of being present in the moment is big and difficult to define. It has similarities to mindfulness, although the research team is not calling it mindfulness based on the responses in the data. But let’s start there:

Mindfulness is defined as “a state of consciousness where a person is aware of the physical and emotional moment, and notices thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).

Let’s consider what research tells us about mindfulness and health, especially among youth. Like adults, young people appear to benefit from mindfulness-based interventions, which is why they are becoming more common in schools and other youth development settings. Specifically, mindfulness is shown to promote academic and social skill development as well as overall healthy psychological functioning (Zoogman, Goldberg, Hoyt, & Miller, 2015).

In our data, being present in the moment includes more than just a present state of awareness. For example, one participant shared, “I feel that every kid should get the chance to go to camp because it’s so different from school. At school, there are so many rules, expectations, homework, and stresses. Being able to have those eight weeks of fun and calm and no worries was beneficial. Otherwise, I would be a completely different and more serious person today.” Based on this and other similar responses, it seems like there are also elements of stress reduction and enjoyment within this larger concept of being present in the moment.

The negative impacts of stress on young people are well known — at the most fundamental level, childhood experiences characterized by stress change the brain chemistry and the brain’s executive functioning, which directly impacts learning (Carrion & Wong, 2012). SEL includes core executive functions such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (see casel.org/what-is-sel/), which means there is likely a strong link between stress and the development of these critical skills.

But being present in the moment is not just about the absence of stress; the data suggest that fun plays an important role in helping campers feel free from worry and connected to the moment. One of the best ways to understand the connection between fun and learning is through Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Flow is an optimal psychological state in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity, time passes quickly, and the person feels enjoyment and success. Flow is fundamentally related to learning because it represents a balance between the level of challenge in the activity and the skills a person has to meet that challenge, which is why flow is often considered part of what fosters youth engagement in a program (Shernoff & Vandell, 2008).

It makes sense, then, there might be a connection between flow and fun at camp. Impact Study participants repeatedly described how much fun they had at camp, and how they now recognize slowing down and having fun are valuable skills in their young adult lives. This is no secret to camp professionals! We know that when campers are having fun, they are more likely to learn the things we want them to learn at camp (Halsall, Kendellen, Bean, & Forneris, 2016).

Of course, we cannot discuss the connections between being present in the moment and SEL without acknowledging the role of technology. Interestingly, a handful of participants discussed the separation from technology as something that helped them feel present in the moment, but this was not a strong theme in and of itself. This is perhaps because technology, and smartphones in particular, may not have been a big part of the participants’ lives in their childhood years. But separation from home, which included, for some, separation from technology, was a key ingredient in helping former campers who participated in the study to feel a sense of being present in the moment while at camp (Wilson et al., 2019). Screens and their effects on learning are well documented in the research (Uhls et al., 2014), which means we can be pretty confident that technology-free experiences at camp have an impact on the extent to which campers develop important SEL skills.

What Being Present in the Moment Looks like at Camp

Wilderness Adventures, Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Written by Tom Holland, Director)

At Wilderness Adventures, we are intentional about having our students live in the moment. We understand that our participants come to us looking for a break from the worries they may have during school or at home. Consequently, we try to work with them to have an experience that centers around seizing the day and living in the present.

To make this happen, we start well before they arrive at Wilderness Adventures. We send them a pack list with an emphasis on bringing only the things they will need for the adventure ahead. As we are a trip and travel camp, one where most of the gear will be packed in a camper’s backpack, we recognize we have the opportunity of highlighting those things in our lives that may be distractions from living in the present. Consequently, we advise them not to bring these items (“Hey, they just add weight,” we say — both in reality and metaphorically). No phones or electronics are allowed, and contact with friends and family at home is done through old-fashioned letters.

Upon arrival, we do a gear check with all students and talk about the hours and days ahead. We like to break down their time with us into small increments — where there are minor goals leading to a larger goal of a successful completion of their trip with us. We discuss what they will need to accomplish their goals, and we are proactive about removing items that will just be a burden for them (What’s the purpose of an iPad in the wilderness?). We then emphasize the critical things they will need: great relationships with their team (the other campers on the trip), good communication skills with their leaders, the important gear they have brought (sleeping bag, rain gear, warm clothes, etc.), and their most powerful tool — their own brain.

This removal of some items that have become central to their lives and the awareness of the items that are important to their present success becomes a theme of their time with us. So, too, does the emphasis on small goals that lead to a greater goal. Instead of always thinking of climbing the huge mountain, they think of making it to the next water break down the trail — and smelling the flowers along the way. We have found that these little things lead to a greater sense of living in the present and making the most of each and every moment.

Kingswood Camp for Boys, Piermont, New Hampshire (Written by Rob Wipfler, Director)

One of the ways Kingswood Camp promotes mindfulness, the practice of living in the moment, is through programming designed to give campers choices throughout the day. We believe that campers should choose their activities while they are at camp, not beforehand, so they can get a sense for what an activity actually entails through observation, reputation, or the excitement drummed up in the moment.

Integral to this process are the adults running the program. Our program director and senior staff carefully consider which activities to offer at any given program block, taking into account campers’ interests, energy levels, the day’s weather, and available staffing to ensure that each activity is set up for success.

At Kingswood, we offer a daily routine and structure with more independent choice and latitude as the day progresses. The most regimented part of the day is in the morning with instructional activities chosen by the campers, changing each week. After lunch and rest hour, our afternoon is divided into two blocks in which campers can choose their activities on a daily basis. Sports tournaments with other camps, hiking trips, waterfront activities, arts, music, and games of all sorts make up the bulk of the offerings, and there is time for the waterfront and less formal events.

After dinner consists primarily of “sponsorships,” where the staff get to determine the events of the evening before bedtime routines commence. The ideas for the sponsorships are generated by the counselors (with directorial oversight), who because of their roles in the trenches with the campers, know which activities the boys are craving. Counselors really enjoy the freedom and spontaneity offering a sponsorship gives them. The options range from traditional activities such as a game of world cup to the truly random such as extreme reading or capture the cumbersome object.

Given all the choices available, it’s essential to inform campers of the merits and expected outcomes of each activity. At Kingswood, this generally occurs after mealtimes when the whole camp is assembled. Campers will gravitate toward any activity that is enthusiastically promoted, and the counselors’ energy is what makes the offerings successful. Counselors love outdoing themselves (and their peers) with their humorous and energetic descriptions of the activities they will be leading. These descriptions, as well as how a camper is feeling in the moment, determine how and where they will spend their time on any given day.

Flexibility of programming for both campers and staff helps ensure high energy levels and satisfaction from all participants. This flexibility also allows campers to choose a more mellow option when they feel the need to vary their camp energy and routine. By giving campers choices and allowing them to decide among a range of well-supervised activities from week to week, day to day, block to block, and minute to minute, we truly allow them to live in the moment while at camp.

Camp Wawenock for Girls, Raymond, Maine (Written by Catriona Logan Sangster, Director)

One of the most powerful life takeaways of Wawenock for both campers and staff is the appreciation for living in the moment, which comes from the opportunity to be fully present in the here and now, and to live free from the distractions and worries of the external world. Campers and staff have told us that they carry this mentality with them into their lives outside of camp, giving them perspective and an improved ability to prioritize, to see the big picture, and to manage stress.

Role modeling by key leaders is an important aspect of setting the tone for an attitude of appreciation for living in the moment. At Wawenock, this is a concept we instill in our staff, which they then model for the campers. It starts with conversations during pre-season training about being intentional with their personal time-off and technology use. Ironically, we often utilize videos to spark thought-provoking conversations about media consumption and its impact on our mood and ability to enjoy the moment. We also challenge staff to set a technology goal for themselves; as an example, one 17-year-old CIT voluntarily removed Instagram from her phone so she wouldn’t be tempted to spend her time off scrolling through photos of others’ curated experiences.

Staff training sets the tone, and consistent messaging throughout the summer continues to foster an atmosphere that permeates the camp family from day to day and from year to year. Messaging is not enough, however, so we are also committed to providing both times and places for staff to take a deep breath and be reminded of the beauty surrounding us and the special relationships formed in this authentic space. Our weekly staff meetings take place on a patio underneath the majestic pines and overlooking the peaceful lake. As staff arrive, fun or inspirational music (based on the theme for the coming week) is playing. Before we delve into the substance of the meeting, we always spend a few minutes taking a deep breath and pause to notice and appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding us. We guide staff to think about the people and the places that are important to them in the outside world, to acknowledge them, and to then return to camp and become aware of each other and to feel the strength of our team. This process reminds staff of the importance of mindfulness, of slowing the pace down, doing something for themselves, and relying on each other for any upcoming challenges. Some weeks, the staff are given the opportunity to write briefly about a person who has made a difference to them, or a “miracle moment” where they have seen a child make progress. Other weeks, we share with the staff thank-yous from parents and campers, or ways we have witnessed staff “living juicy,” which is our way of saying living life to the fullest. These are all reminders of what’s valued in our camp family.

In the outside world, the fear of being judged by others can be paralyzing. Part of what allows campers and staff to live in the moment at camp is the intangible feeling they have of safety and security to be completely themselves, free from worry about judgment from others. The intentional creation of that trusted camp family is at the heart of allowing each girl to relax and live in the moment. Of course, building trust takes time, and we are fortunate to have the majority of our campers for seven weeks, and many who repeat year after year. At Wawenock, staff are trained to build confidence in girls; they are taught to look for the contribution each girl makes to a group, and to help that child uncover the unique skill or trait that makes her stand out, shine, and be a valued member of the group. Carefully facilitated group activities and bedtime routines, which appear casual to the onlooker, are very intentional on the part of the staff for creating a positive atmosphere where reflection is encouraged, and opportunities for girls to recognize each other’s strengths are integrated.

In addition, staff and campers celebrate “living juicy” — or spontaneous fun! At camp, you will see a group of 14-year-old girls jumping in puddles, 9-year-olds hosting a dog wedding, or 11-year-olds participating in an imaginary horse show with brooms. What you won’t see is these campers staging the activity to get the right shot to post on their social media accounts. They are allowed to participate fully without worry of curating their experience for others to pass judgment.

Because campers and counselors are looking up rather than down at their phones, their awareness of the beauty life has to offer is heightened. This is magnified by invitations each week to notice the physical surroundings, for example, pausing to take in the moment at weekly campfire. Where else in the world but at camp do 150 people sit quietly together, aged seven to 77, listening for the sounds of birds, leaves blowing in the trees, or waves lapping on the lake? Likewise, campers and staff are invited to stay after our weekly vespers service atop the Image rocks, a tall cliff overlooking the lake, for contemplation, reading, and journaling or drawing.

By providing the intentional time and space, we show campers and staff that we value each individual and their ability to live carefree and in the moment. Here’s what one alumna/staff member shared: “Being unpressured, undistracted in the moment with others, has allowed me to really get to know people for who they are. After nine years as a camper and four years on staff, I can truly feel the impact Wawenock has had on my life. In the moment, it was difficult to live with other girls for seven weeks; it was difficult to make conversation at the dinner table; it was difficult to mediate arguments and understand the points of view of others. Despite these challenges, I was exposed to many life skills that I need to succeed in my independent adult life. I can’t stress enough how lucky I feel to be able to understand and appreciate the beauty of life and living with Wawenock spirit in my heart every day.”

Making Being Present in the Moment a Part of Your Camp

Separation from home and school and disconnection from technology are two ways many camps help campers feel present in the moment. For overnight camps and camps that are too remote for Wi-Fi, these features likely come easy. But what about day camps? Can day camps create a sense of separation, even though campers will go home in the evening?

Absolutely. Day and overnight camps, camps in nature and camps in the city, camps of all shapes and sizes have opportunities to maximize fun and enjoyment (and maybe even flow) and help campers reflect on the ways they felt present in the moment during their time at camp. Here are some ideas for how you might integrate these concepts into your camp:

  • Recognize the power and importance of fun, and all the different ways that individual camps might experience fun. Choice and variety in activity, ranging from big-energy, social activities to quiet, solo activities, will ensure all campers can engage their interests and have fun.
  • Consider the ways individual campers might experience stress, even at camp. Check out this recent Camping Magazine article on making your camp low stress (ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/why-everyone-edge-these-days-make-your-camp-stress-anxiety-free), and consider reflection activities where campers can describe how they feel at camp and how they might feel more present in the moment at home.
  • Mindfulness activities for kids are easy to find and integrate into your camp programming. Here is another Camping Magazine article with some specific ideas: ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/mindfulness-skill-moving-eye-storm.
  • Technology has a role at camp; even if your camp is tech-free, your campers likely came from a world with technology and will return to that world either each day or at the end of their time at camp. If your camp is tech-free, help campers identify how they feel without their phones or access to the Internet. Do they feel happier? More relaxed? Are they sleeping better? How can they translate this to home?

Appreciation for being present in the moment continues to emerge as a strong theme as our Impact Study work continues. We will learn more about the concept and how specifically camps can cultivate this sense of well-being. In the meantime, check out what else we are learning about the lasting impacts of camp experiences and how those impacts are helping young people thrive in school, in the workplace, and in their emerging adult lives.

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Woodstock; Woodstock Valley, Connecticut.

References

Carrion, V. G., & Wong, S. S. (2012). Can traumatic stress alter the brain? Understanding the implications of early trauma on brain development and learning. Journal of adolescent health, 51(2), S23–S28.

Halsall, T., Kendellen, K., Bean, C. N., & Forneris, T. (2016). Facilitating positive youth development through residential camp: Exploring perceived characteristics of effective camp counselors and strategies for youth engagement. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, 34(4).

Greene, K. M., Lee, B., Constance, N. F., & Hynes, K. M. (2013). Examining youth and program predictors of engagement in out-of-school time programs. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42 10, 1557–72.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Mindfulness meditation for everyday life. London, England: Piatkus Books.

Shernoff, D. J., & Vandell, D. L. (2008). Youth engagement and quality of experience in afterschool programs. Afterschool Matters, 9(1), 1–14.

Wilson, C., Akiva, T., Sibthorp, J., & Browne, L. P. (2019). Fostering distinct and transferable learning via summer camp. Children and Youth Services Review, 98, 269–277.

Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387–392.

Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2015). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290–302.

Additional Resources

Camping Magazine articles:

Research 360 blogs:

More on ACA's Impact Study

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.