5-Year Impact Study Phase 2 Findings: Relationship Skills

Laurie Browne, PhD, and Rob Warner
July 2019
Camp Hometown Heroes camper trio of grief

By now many of you have heard of ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study, a national research project focused on the lasting impacts of camp among campers and staff. We described the study and its research questions in the January/February 2019 issue of Camping Magazine and explored the first of four preliminary themes in a March/April 2019 article focused on independence and responsibility. Those outcomes were among several that emerged as lasting outcomes of the camp experience that participants reported were both distinct to camp — meaning they learned about independence and responsibility at camp in ways they did not in other contexts — and critical in their lives as emerging adults. In this issue, we dive into a second outcome that was a similarly strong finding, both among individuals with strong ties to ACA-accredited camps and among a sample drawn from the general public.

In this article we will look at relationship skills through the lens of social-emotional learning (SEL) and explore why employers now identify relationship skills as key to workforce success now and into the future. Four camp directors from ACA-accredited camps who participated in the 5-Year Impact Study will describe what relationship skills look like at their camps, and we will share some actionable ways you can celebrate how you are already helping campers learn relationship skills at your camp as well as a tip or two for making the relationship skills campers learn at camp last throughout their lives.

ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study Series Recap

A quick recap of ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study and how you can learn more:

  • Five-year research project, conducted by ACA in partnership with a University of Utah research team, focused on the lasting impacts of camp, specifically those related to social-emotional learning.
  • The research team is asking people who attended camp as kids about what they learned at camp and how they are applying it in college, their jobs, and their early adult lives.
  • 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.

Relationship Skills: Simple Concept, Not So Simple Skill

Defining relationship skills is both straightforward and complex. On the surface, relationship skills is an umbrella term we use to define ways we seek, form, and maintain healthy and supportive connections with other people. According to Deci and Ryan’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory, feeling connected to others, which they call a sense of relatedness, is a basic human need; people are wired for human connection and we are at our best when we have healthy relationships in our lives. We can see the power of healthy relationships in the earliest stages of life (check out a fascinating episode of NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain, where host Shankar Vedantam explores new research about babies and how they develop relationship skills: NPR.org/2018/11/19/669319079/radio-replay-bringing-up-baby) and what happens when young children do not have the opportunity to practice developing healthy relationships with others.

We can also see the power of relationship skills in what futurists are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Relationship skills will become increasingly critical as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which, according to Tom Rosenberg (2019), ACA president/CEO, will be characterized by increasingly nonhuman technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence. The ability to interact with one another, and these technologies, in healthy and productive ways will soon be the key to success in the workplace and beyond.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies relationship skills as one of five competencies that characterize social-emotional learning. Relationship skills, according to this framework, enable a young person to “communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed” (CASEL, 2019).

From this list, we can see that relationship skills encompass specific actions, such as clear communication and listening, that people take to seek, form, and maintain healthy and supportive relationships with others. Seemingly simple, but, yet, several factors remind us that the process of developing relationship skills, much less the practice of teaching relationship skills, might not be so simple after all.

First, it is important to note that not all people have a strong or inherent approach to seeking and forming relationships with others. Certain cognitive, social, and emotional disabilities challenge the extent to which some individuals can seek, form, and maintain healthy and supportive relationships with others. Young people with autism spectrum disorder, for example, have very individual orientations toward others and seek and maintain relationships in unique ways (Robledo & Donnellan, 2016). Short of a diagnosed condition that affects a person’s orientation to others, there are myriad social and contextual factors that shape how young people engage in relationships. The nature of close relationships varies across cultures, and early childhood experiences, especially those that are traumatic, determine not only if and how a young person forms relationships, but what we, as camp providers, should consider the norm in terms of relationship skills. Finally, we must resist the temptation to blame technology for the challenges young people might face in building relationship skills. For some, technology gets in the way of direct human interaction, but for others, technology can provide a safe method for communication, sharing, and connection. Technology, with all of its benefits and limitations, is a reality in many young people’s lives, and something that without a doubt shapes how relationship skills develop at camp, regardless of whether technology is present at camp or not.

Relationship Skills as a Lasting Outcome of Camp Experiences

Given these complexities, it is great news that relationship skills was the most frequent and in-depth outcome shared by former campers in Phase 1 of the 5-Year Impact Study, and among the most highly rated outcomes from a survey of former campers in Phase 2. In Phase 1, we interviewed 64 emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 25 about their childhood camp experiences, what they learned, and how they are using what they learned to navigate school, work, and life in general. Not only did this outcome emerge as most “transferable” beyond camp, but participants identified relationship skills as “camp-critical,” meaning camp was critical to their development of relationship skills when compared to school and other learning contexts.

Phase 2 tested these findings through a survey of two samples of 18- to 25-year-olds who had attended camp for at least three weeks as children. The first group was recruited through approximately 70 different ACA-accredited camps and were enrolled to serve as first-time camp counselors in the summer of 2018. The second group, at the time of the study, were not affiliated with ACA-accredited camps and were recruited by a third-party research firm. For both groups, relationship skills emerged again as among the outcomes most distinct to camp and critical to young adult life (Wilson, Akiva, Sibthorp, & Browne, 2019). Additionally, participants shared that camp staff and opportunities to interact with peers were among the camp mechanisms that allowed them to learn about relationship skills in a way that lasts over time. Time spent at camp also appears to make a difference: former campers who reported spending seven weeks or more at camp, as well as those who engaged in some degree of developmental progression, such as a CIT/LIT program or moving from camper to staff person, reported a stronger sense of relationship skill development than those who did not (Wilson & Sibthorp, 2019).

Relationship Skills at Camp: What Directors Say

The power of camp as a context for relationship skill development cannot be understated. ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study confirms and extends what we’ve known for decades (Thurber, Scanlin, Scheuler, & Henderson, 2007): camp experience are rich in opportunities to interact with others, peers and adults, in ways that are different from school and home. And while it is clear that youth learn across a vast learning landscape (Ozier, 2018), we know now that relationship skills are one way that camp experiences make unique and valuable contributions to that landscape.

As intuitive as this sounds, how campers practice relationship skills at camp is less clear. To see firsthand what this might look like at camp, we asked camp directors from ACA-accredited camps who participated in the 5-Year Impact Study to tell us more about what relationship skills mean to them. Here is what they had to say.

Todd Rotham, Director: Deerkill Day Camp, Rockland, New York

Camp provides a unique opportunity for children to increase their confidence in making new friends — “camp friends.” It’s a fresh start for kids to leave their school persona, along with any cliques that may exist, behind and start anew. A mature staff at camp makes all the difference when it comes to keeping tabs on group dynamics and making sure everyone feels like they’re part of the group. Unfortunately, teachers in a school setting with limited time constraints don’t often have the time or opportunity to work with their students in this capacity.

As technology becomes a growing part of children’s lives, camp has become an even more valuable place for children to unplug and relate to each other in the real world. Whether it’s negotiating on the playground (e.g. who is going to push the merry go round and who is going to ride on it), working together to create a group skit for the camp show, or deciding who is going to play what position in a soccer game, opportunities at camp abound for children to navigate new social situations and develop all-important life skills. These are the critical skills they will carry with them as they enter college and eventually pursue careers.

We often hear from parents how they were initially anxious about their child coming to a new camp where they didn’t have any friends, and then how relieved they were to hear about all of the new friends their child made during the summer and thrilled to see their child’s individual development and growth. That, in a nutshell, is the benefit of the day camp experience.

Niki Papak, Program Director, and Stacy Schwartz Kotelov, Owner/Executive Director: Banner Day Camp, Lake Forest, Illinois

A summer spent playing outdoors at a well-organized summer camp is more than just fun. In a time when days and years at school are increasingly devoted to preparing for standardized tests and academic achievement, summer camps play a necessary role in developing the social and emotional intelligence that is required to be successful in the 21st century. The time spent at camp face-to-face with peers and staff, and away from technology and screens and the everyday stresses that come from school, naturally leads to increased empathy, collaboration, and compromise as campers develop a safe community that feels like home for years to come.

Great camps develop programs that foster important relationship skills for campers and staff of all ages. At Banner, campers learn to cooperate and work together as a team at activities like Banner Builders where they create a structure using large blocks, drama where they work together to put on a performance, our petting zoo where they care for our animals, and in our competitive sport league. Campers participating at our high ropes course learn to communicate and listen for safety signals, are encouraged by staff interaction, and cheer each other on as they take new risks scaling the towers and flying on the giant swing. By giving them authentic experiences to interact and direct play together, campers learn how to communicate their needs and work through conflict.

Many camp communities are unique in that they celebrate both the strengths of each individual camper as well as the connections of the campers as a whole. At Banner, all of the groups participate in a variety of buddy of the day programs, which encourage campers to make new friends and develop relationships with others they don’t know and/or would not naturally be drawn toward. Intentional programming that includes choice activities as well as our daily, supervised free play allow campers to develop their own identities as they follow their own interests in programming. For many, this is the first time that they independently choose what they are going to do and with whom. They are able to become their own person knowing that there is always a safe place for them within their group, with their counselor and friends cheering them on.

One of the best examples of this came from last summer. Two sports league teams (made up of campers from all of the groups at the age level) were playing in the first session playoff game. In the final seconds, a boy named Jack kicked the ball into the net and scored the winning goal. Within a few seconds, campers from all ten sports league teams were storming the field and cheering for and high-fiving Jack, including many of the campers from the team that had just lost. Not only did these campers display amazing sportsmanship, they showed that their love of their camp community and camp friends far outweighed the importance of winning.

The greatest challenge facing camps as they develop these important relationship skills is how to ensure that they “stick” once campers leave camp and return to their families, schools, and friends. Will they continue to be inclusive, kind, and empathetic? Will they feel confident to truly be themselves instead of following the crowd? At Banner, we believe that we change the trajectory of a camper’s life simply by naming the skills they are learning and helping them see themselves in a positive light. Much time is spent during staff orientation teaching staff to recognize moments when campers are being good friends, good communicators, showing empathy to one another, etc. Each Friday in special ceremonies, campers are recognized for their positive contributions to their camp groups and our larger camp community. We hope that as camp draws to a close each August, campers leave Banner believing in themselves and their abilities to impact all those around them for the better.

Adam Bell, Executive Director: R. M. Pyles Boys Camp, Valencia California:

Camp is the first time many of our campers see positive relationships in action. Prior to arriving, many of the relationships they have experienced have been abusive, neglectful, or absent. When they first meet their counselor, they gain their first positive adult role model in their lives. The social environments in which our campers grow up encourage them to remain stoic, bottle up emotions, and act in a way consistent with toxic masculinity. Camp allows our boys to experience joy, sadness, success, frustration, triumph, and conflict. All is done under the careful mentorship of an experienced camp counselor.

The relationship skills learned and practiced at camp are applicable post camp, as today’s campers grow into tomorrow’s employees, family members, and community leaders. Here is just a sample of what some of our campers have to say:

  • I met new people. I made great new friends and we worked together and trusted each other. (Daniel, 2018 1st Session Camper)
  • While at camp, I learned how to be a better son, a better student, and how to be a better friend. (Miguel, 2018 1st Session Camper)
  • After going to Pyles Camp, I now know the true meaning of brotherly LOVE. (Michael, 2018 1st Session Camper)
  • I learned that you are never alone, and you will always have support. (Arturo, 2018 1st Session Camper)
  • I finally have a family. (Cesar, 2018 2nd Session Camper)
  • While at camp, I learned that being a man is not about being the strongest or being the best on the team, it’s about how you treat other people. (Devin, 2018 3rd Session Camper)

Andy Lilienthal, Owner/Director: Camp Winnebago, Fayette, Maine

The palette that colors Camp Winnebago is painted in an infinite variety of hues — the blues of the sky and water, the greens and browns of the earth, and all that is in-between. A watermark that lies in the background of camp’s canvas is the relationships skills that we emphasize and that underpin much of what we do.

One of our mantras at camp is “give your best effort.” Achievement is relative and to get campers to buy into and focused on their own relative achievement necessitates campers enjoying healthy and real relationships with staff and with each other. How do we teach and perpetuate such relationships?

With staff we take a vertical approach. From staff interviews, after staff is hired, and before they arrive at camp, during training and throughout the summer, we emphasize and teach relationship building skills — from the basics of “money in the bank,” and “closed fist open fist” to more complicated concepts such as the importance of delineating between being a friend and being friendly with campers. Our evaluation reinforces our focus on helping counselors improve their relationship skills and how they integrate relationship skills into programming. It takes consistent reminding and continual follow-up for the staff to maintain a high level of awareness. Like most areas when dealing with human development, paying attention to the details plays a significant role.

We also encourage and work with the older campers so they understand the importance of relationship skills both with each other and with the younger campers. Through our Big Brother program, senior campers spend time with their younger brethren and serve as elder guides. They also enjoy regular opportunities to both lead by example and serve as role models in formal and informal ways.

Additionally, because of our relatively small camper to counselor ratio in the cabins (4:1), counselors have the time to focus with their charges on how to forge positive relationships and live in a community. Basic ideas of acknowledging space, sharing workloads, and respect for differences are nearly daily topics of conversation, along with deeper aspects of emotional intelligence such as empathy, sympathy, and forgiveness.

Relationship skills are tested all the time. A team is playing poorly and a teammate blows up on the field. There is a group swim across the lake and one of the campers is having a hard time keeping up. A boy wakes up in the morning and his bunkmates discover that he peed in his bed. In all of these cases, there is an opportunity for others to make fun of, denigrate, and otherwise act negatively toward that camper. In the slight chance that does occur, counselors understand their position as interactive role models and step in either directly with the camper or as a facilitator with a larger group to exploit and use the teachable moment.

When there is a community-wide approach and consistent attention is paid to both the macro and micro pieces of helping staff and campers understand the importance of relationship skills and learning how to forge positive and meaningful relationships, the benefits that result are life changing and paramount to stretching a canvas across camp filled with learning, friendship, and a deeper universal understanding of what it means to play a part in a positive community.

Your Turn

How do you foster relationship skills at camp? Do you see relationship skills as a lasting outcome of the camp experiences you provide, and, if so, how do you know? Follow us as we continue to explore the lasting impacts of camps in this Camping Magazine series, including articles focused on the role of camp in helping campers’ appreciation others’ differences and camp as a context for young people to learn to be present, free from worry, and in the moment.

In the meantime, follow along with ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study at ACAcamps.org/impactstudy and in the Research 360 blog: ACAcamps.org/staff-professionals/news-publications/blogs/research-360.

Photo courtesy of Camp Hometown Heroes, Grafton, Wisconsin

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2019). Framework for systemic social and emotional learning. CASEL. Retrieved from casel.org

Ozier, L. (2018). Learning landscapes: The educational spectrum from camps to classrooms. Journal of Youth Development, 13 (1–2). Available online jyd.pitt.edu/ojs/jyd/article/view/181301TLC01

Robledo, J., & Donnellan, A. M. (2016). Supportive relationships in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Perspectives of individuals with ASD and supporters. Behavioral Science, 6(4), 23. Available online ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5197936/

Rosenberg, T. (2019, January). Empowering communities at camp: Facing the Fourth Industrial Revolution together. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/empowering-communities-camp-facing-fourth-industrial-revolution-together

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist55(1), 68.

Thurber, C. A., Scanlin, M. M., Scheuler, L., & Henderson, K. A. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence36(3), 241–254.

Wilson, C., & Sibthorp, J. (2019). The role of behavioral loyalty in youth development at summer camp. Journal of Leisure Research, 50, 28–47.

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.

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.