5-Year Impact Study Phase 2 Findings: Responsibility and Independence

Laurie Browne, PhD, and Rob Warner
February 2019
camper with counselor

ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study Series
This article is the second in a five-article series discussing significant outcomes of Phase 2 of ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study.

In the last issue of Camping Magazine, we introduced readers to ACA’s 5-Year Impact Study, a national research project focused on the lasting impacts of camp. That article was the first of a five-article Camping Magazine series taking a close look at four key findings from Phase 2 of the Impact Study: independence and responsibility, appreciation for living in the moment, appreciation for individual differences, and relationship skills. These are several of the outcomes that emerged from the data as the most distinct to camp, and the outcomes participants felt were most important in their young adult lives. You can read more about the study and what we have learned so far by visiting our Impact Study web page, but here is a quick review:

  • 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.
  • The research team asked 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.

Independence and responsibility are included together here because they emerged from the data as overlapping concepts, so, even though they are defined differently, people who attend camp appear to learn about independence and responsibility in similar ways. The goal in this article is to look at independence and responsibility and their place in the larger framework of social-emotional learning (SEL) and the ways independence and responsibility help young people succeed into adulthood. Then four camp directors, each of whom participated in various phases of the Impact Study, discuss what these concepts look like at their camps and specific ways they promote independence and responsibility among their campers. Also offered are some ideas for promoting independence and responsibility at camp that can help your campers thrive in college, in their careers, and in their adult lives.

Responsibility, Independence, and Social-Emotional Learning

SEL is how we are describing the lasting outcomes of camp that are emerging from the Impact Study. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies skills such as self-management and awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness as critical to a young person’s development. In this model, responsibility is “The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others” (CASEL, 2018). One Impact Study participant reflected back on her childhood camp experience by explaining that “At camp, you always had some sort of job or chore, and it taught me a little bit more responsibility than I had before I went. I was a waitress and a busgirl, so I had to clean up, and being at camp, you had to clean up your own mess. That definitely helped with my job.”

Independence is generally defined by both separation and agency. Separation is a key factor in youth development and typically occurs as a young person grows up and engages in school, sports, and in social groups apart from their parents. When separated from the influence of their parents or caregivers, they have opportunities to actively shape who they are and who they want to be in the future (Osher, Cantor, Berg, Steyer, & Rose, 2018). As one former camper and Impact Study participant explained, “I think that a big thing for me was learning to do things on my own and not have to rely on my parents for that week. Like washing my laundry throughout the week and not being able to discuss what my day was like over dinner. It’s a good thing to be able to learn from camp to not totally rely on your parents 100 percent of the time.”

The key to independence is the extent to which a person feels a sense of agency. This is a concept that is defined in different ways and with important cultural implications, namely that some cultures value and promote a person’s ability to direct their own behavior apart from the influence of others, and some cultures value a more collective social structure. Independence that includes a strong sense of personal agency is highly valued in Western culture and considered essential to what young people need to thrive in adulthood (Nagaoka et al., 2015; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012).

Findings from Phase 2 of ACA’s Impact Study suggest that independence and responsibility are lasting outcomes of the camp experience. This reinforces previous research that links these outcomes, along with other social-emotional skills that young people learn at camp, to academic and workplace readiness (Whittington & Garst, 2018; Wilson & Sibthorp, 2018). With these new findings, however, we know a little more about how campers gain a sense of independence and responsibility and the unique role that camp plays in their development.

  • Campers learn about independence and responsibility in similar ways at camp, possibly because the separation from home, in the case of overnight camps, gives campers opportunities to practice responsibility and develop a sense of agency.
  • Independence and responsibility are identified by Impact Study participants as among the most transferable outcomes of camp, meaning something they learned at camp as a child that they consider critical to their lives as an emerging adult.
  • These outcomes also appear to be distinct to camp. When asked to compare what they learned at camp with school, home, church, sports, and other developmental contexts, Impact Study participants identified camp as a key context for learning about independence and responsibility.
  • Camp staff and opportunities for active, self-directed learning appear to be critical factors in helping campers develop independence and responsibility at camp. For campers who attend overnight camp, the separation from their home environment is an additional factor.

These findings tell us that independence and responsibility are significant outcomes of attending camp, and these outcomes appear to last over time. Given research that links independence and responsibility to SEL, the development of which helps young people thrive into adulthood, we can be excited that camp experiences have lasting impacts. But what does this look like at camp? To better understand how independence and responsibility develop at camp, we asked several directors from ACA-accredited camps who participated in the Impact Study to offer us a glimpse into their camps.

Jeff Cheley, Director of Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park, Colorado

At Cheley Camps, we realize one of the most important aspects of the camp experience is learning independence and responsibility. We communicate to our parents that there will be times of discomfort and disagreement. We have limited spots on our hikes into Rocky Mountain National Park and a limited number of horses. There will be times when a camper does not get their first choice. There will also be times of disagreement between campers. These are opportunities for growth. The camper has to navigate these situations without help from their parents. They learn that they can take control of their experiences and survive some discomfort.

Campers also have to learn how to pack their own backpacks and be prepared for the unknown. I recently heard a funny story from one of our alumni/current camp parents. She was on an open-air bus tour in Boulder with a group of people (a few of them were also Cheley alumni). During the tour, one of our Colorado afternoon rainstorms came through. All of the Cheley alumni reached into their backpacks and pulled out their raingear. They all laughed that Cheley campers are always prepared for the elements. She even chuckled that she had an extra pair of socks in case anyone needed them.

Elizabeth Olsen, Camp Registrar at Camp Hopewell in Oxford, Mississippi

Independence can be hard to come by when you are a child growing up with type 1 diabetes. From the moment I was diagnosed at four years old, I became more tethered to my parents than ever before. Suddenly, every bite of food had to be accounted for, strict insulin regimens had to be kept, and blood sugar had to be consistently monitored. My life was literally in the hands of the adult(s) who took care of me. Without proper care, this disease can be fatal. My parents have said many times over the years just how terrifying it was to relinquish even an ounce of control of my diabetes to me.

As a camper with type 1 diabetes at Camp Hopewell Diabetes Camp, I experienced so much joy and an overwhelming sense of peace every summer. I was no longer “different.” It was in this place that I truly learned how to count carbs, give insulin shots, change my pump sites, and try new ways of caring for my diabetes. It was here that I learned how to talk about my diabetes and how not to be ashamed of it. It was here that I formed a solid foundation for diabetes management that has allowed me to live successfully with this disease as an adult. When I became a summer camp counselor and then a full-time staffer at Hopewell, which I am today, I grew to understand how those feelings are cultivated.

Here at Hopewell, children living with type 1 diabetes are given the reins to their medical care. Campers count their own carbs at meals and tabulate the corresponding amount of insulin to be given. With the help of a nurse, campers weigh in on dosage amounts, when to have a snack, and other diabetes-related decisions. We call these “teachable moments,” and it is what, in my opinion, makes the Hopewell model for diabetes camping so successful. By allowing our campers to be a part of the decision-making process, they learn how to listen to their bodies and to critically think about why they are making a particular choice.

To this day, my mother will tell you that sending me to diabetes camp at Camp Hopewell was the hardest thing she has ever done in her life, but also the best decision she has ever made. I have to agree with her on the latter sentiment. I have been living with type 1 diabetes for more than 23 years, and I am happy to report that my life is happy, healthy, and extremely fulfilling, all thanks to the confidence and independence I gained from my summers spent at Camp Hopewell.

Gregg Golf, Boys’ Camp Director at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas

Camp Champions is an ideal environment to promote both responsibility and independence, traits that are frequently underdeveloped in our young people. With the best of intentions, adults often “overparent” their children and deny them opportunities to become independent and accountable. At camp, we stress responsibility in our language and our actions. In fact, one of the “four Rs” of camp is responsibility. Our campers are responsible for their possessions, their behavior, and their shared living spaces.

We are also a tech-free camp, so campers learn independence not only from parents, but also from social media. With the support of counselor-heroes, each child can explore his or her own identity and power outside of a parent’s shadow or the pull of technology. These impacts begin during staff training as we educate the counselors on the challenges of children and how the traditions, program, and language of camp can be a uniquely powerful intervention for our campers. Certainly, our campers have fun, but that is not enough. We passionately embrace the opportunity to foster powerful and lasting growth by supporting the growth of independence and responsibility in every one of our campers.

Ariella Rogge, Director for High Trails Ranch at Sanborn Western Camps in Florissant, Colorado

At Sanborn, like at most camps, we are asking kids to practice and develop new self-efficacy skills in what is, often, a brand-new environment. Through community-living skills like daily cabin cleanup, preparing and packing for daylong or overnight outdoor trips, managing personal belongings, and living within community-developed guidelines and boundaries, our campers increase their sense and understanding of personal responsibility. Our staff understand they need to model this behavior — “Do It to Be It . . . Do It to See It” — and when they “see it” they need to “name it” to help the campers know what responsibility looks like, sounds like, or feels like at camp.

Our outdoor, unpredictable environment also encourages responsibility, as a camper who forgets to pack a rain jacket may end up hiking wearing a trash bag. When campers choose their own trips and activities at the beginning of camp, they must take ownership of their choices, as they only receive a certain number of “switch” coupons — allowing them to change off of one trip or six activities — for the month. Our adventure activities like rock climbing, mountaineering, horseback riding, and others contain elements of risk that require campers to become more aware of and responsible for their actions. In the face of environmental, social, and emotional dynamics, unexpected illness, or other uncontrollable factors, campers learn to recognize they can choose to be problem solvers, not problem makers.

We make it a priority that staff members communicate regularly with each other, so they can continually encourage campers to take on ever greater responsibility within the community. When this happens, campers developmentally progress from being responsible for themselves to being responsible for their cabinmates to being responsible for the community to being stewards and leaders in the larger world. Parents consistently let us know their children come home more responsible and independent, and our work with ACA’s Youth Outcomes Battery also consistently demonstrates growth in independence and responsibility across all age groups and genders, regardless of how many years they have attended camp.

Fostering Responsibility and Independence at Camp

Day and overnight camp programs are ideal places for campers to practice responsibility and develop a sense of independence. Learning to keep track of their bathing suits and towels at a day camp and learning how to pack the appropriate gear for a wilderness backpacking trip are fantastic examples of responsibility, and campers choosing their activities or taking a leadership role in planning an event are opportunities to develop a sense of agency, which leads to a sense of independence. Most camps are giving campers ample opportunities to practice responsibility but might consider ways to help campers see their responsibility in action. Simply naming campers’ responsible actions — telling them that they are being responsible when they do or say something responsible — is a good way to anchor those skills for long-term learning.

A great way to inspire campers to develop a sense of independence, even in day camp programs, is to give them choices to make meaningful decisions about their time at camp. Inviting campers to choose from a selection of activities is common at camps. Try to take this a step further by inviting campers to lead and even design activities, special events, or field trips. To ensure this experience with agency or self-determination translates into feelings of independence, be sure to name it when it happens.

Responsibility and independence, like each of the Impact Study outcomes we will discuss in this series, are critical in former campers’ lives as emerging adults and areas where camp makes a unique contribution. Join us for the rest of this series to learn more about these outcomes and what camps who participated in ACA’s Impact Study have to say. Until then, follow ACA research at ACAcamps.org/staff-professionals/news-publications/blogs/research-360.

For More Information

Does summer camp really make a difference? We know camp changes lives but what impact does it have on the lives of former campers? Watch four videos featuring ACA’s national study team talking to 18- to 25-year olds who attended summer camp as kids — Videos: The Impact of Camp 

For more information on core social-emotional learning competencies, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s website.

Photo courtesy of Jameson Ranch Camp, Glennville, California.

References

  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2018). Core SEL competencies. CASEL. Retrieved from casel.org/core-competencies/
  • Eccles, J. S. (1999). The development of children ages 6 to 14. Future of Children, 9(2), 30–44.
  • Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C. A., Ehrlich, S. B., Heath, R. D., Johnson, D. W., Dickson, S., Turner, A. C., Mayo, A., & Hayes, K. (2015). Foundations for young adult success: A developmental framework. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
  • Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science. Retrieved from tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650
  • Pellegrino, J.W., & Hilton, M.L. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Whittington, A. & Garst, B. (2018). The role of camp in shaping college readiness and building a pathway to the future for camp alumni. Journal of Youth Development, 13(1–2), 105–125.
  • Wilson, C., & Sibthorp, J. (2018). Examining the role of summer camps in developing academic and workplace readiness. Journal of Youth Development, 13(1–2), 83–104.

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.

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