Let Your Research Flag Fly! How to Magnify Your Camp Story with Research

July 2015

In one of her 2010 commentaries in Camping Magazine, former American Camp Association CEO Peg Smith reflected on her conversations with award-winning researcher Marge Scanlin nearly a decade earlier about establishing a strong research tradition in the ACA). She said, “We wanted to find a way to create a culture that could not only say, ‘Camp Gives Kids a World of Good,’ but demonstrate science-based evidence of such” (Smith, 2010). This contrasting desire for both anecdotes and evidence resonates with me. As a former camper, camp counselor, and camp professional, I know that feeling deep down in your gut that summer camp is a special, transformative place for all involved. I have those iconic stories we all tell others of campers or counselors I saw change because of camp. But now, as a camp researcher, I understand how evidence, research, and evaluation can provide a platform to collect, demonstrate, and magnify those stories in a powerful way.

Nearly 15 years after those early conversations about establishing a research environment for ACA, camp research has grown exponentially. Contemporary camp research efforts range from ACA-driven national research initiatives to individual academic and professional studies in particular camp contexts to, most recently, studies examining the impact and processes of camp in a global context (Fine, 2012). Amidst this growing body of research, questions can still emerge about whether such research efforts can be of any use to camp professionals. So how could research impact what you do as a camp professional? First, camp research can help you tell your camp’s story. As Henderson and Scanlin (2004) discussed, information is power in today’s world. Particularly as society increasingly asks for evidence of value, research and evaluation can provide a persuasive way to communicate your camp’s value to campers, parents, board members, alumni, staff, and funders (Ball & Ball, 2009). Secondly, camp research can help you enhance the camp experience for your campers and staff. In his closing address at the Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Dan Garvey (2006) suggested that one reason research and evaluation are important to an experiential field is that they “…help create new knowledge and they allow us to determine if the actions we take are likely to result in the outcomes we desire.” Whether you put others’ research to use at your camp or conduct research in your own camp context, research findings can help to inform the intentional choices you make each day as a camp professional.

Practical Takeaways from the ACA 2015 Camp Research Forum

Even if you are a steadfast advocate for incorporating camp research into camp practice, staying on top of the latest research can, at first glance, appear a daunting task. Lucky for us, there are a variety of opportunities for camp professionals and camp researchers to learn from and collaborate with one another. One such opportunity occurs annually at the American Camp Association National Conference. During each year’s conference, the Camp Research Forum presents the latest developments in camp research through verbal presentations and a poster session. Each study presented during the Camp Research Forum undergoes a double-blind peer review process to ensure it addresses the forum’s dual purposes of presenting rigorous research and emphasizing the application of research findings to the work of camp professionals. The 2015 Camp Research Forum in February featured 12 oral presentations and 16 poster presentations that reflected the combined research efforts of over 40 university researchers and camp professionals (see Table 1).

I would like to highlight some of the overall practical takeaways from the 2015 Camp Research Forum. I asked the moderators from each of the four verbal presentation sessions (Deb Bialeschki, Laurie Browne, Ann Gillard, and Karla Henderson) to share with me the insights they gained from their session that would be applicable to camp professionals. Combining their thoughts with my own reflections on this year’s Camp Research Forum, I identified six major takeaways about what camp professionals might find useful from the latest camp research. Four of the takeaways are related to camp practice and two are related to camp research and evaluation.

  • Summer camp can foster a range of meaningful outcomes for campers and staff. In the studies at this year’s forum, selected outcomes for campers included life skills, reading attitudes, creativity, resilience, relationship skills, and appreciation. Outcomes for staff included confidence, leadership, goal-setting ability, responsibility, and problem solving, among others. Does your camp hope to foster similar outcomes? If so, be sure to check out the individual studies to get more information.
  • How outcomes occur is impacted by the intentionality, structure, and characteristics of your camp and campers. Findings from several studies in this year’s forum would encourage camp professionals to consider what unique aspects of your camp (camper/staff population, program structure, leadership tactics) may help or hinder the outcomes you hope to foster in campers and staff.
  • Training staff for specific desired competencies is important. In reflecting on Research Forum #1, Karla Henderson (2015, personal correspondence) believed that the studies in that session “…pointed to the need to determine necessary counselor skills, teach them through training and specific curricula, and evaluate the outcomes to improve camp programs and the experiences of campers.” This takeaway emerged in other studies in the forum as well. Identify the outcomes you hope to foster in your campers and counselors, then train your counselors in specific methods to support the development of those outcomes both in their campers and in themselves.
  • Summer camp possesses unique attributes to impact serious issues in a fun, supportive atmosphere. Several of the studies in this year’s forum addressed outcomes for camper populations living with or impacted by cancer, sickle cell, metabolic disease, leukemia, HIV/AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses. Camps around the globe are teaching youth in these sensitive populations the skills they need (i.e. resilience, friendship skills, and knowledge about their illness) in an environment of fun, games, and challenge through a network of caring adults.
  • A variety of evaluation and research tools are already available to help you conduct research in your own camp setting. The researchers throughout the forum utilized a variety of already existing data collection tools that may be applicable to your own camp’s goals. These tools ranged from the ACA’s Youth Outcomes Battery to the Camp Program Quality Assessment tool to individual tools that measure a number of outcomes such as appreciation, resilience, quality of life, and divergent thinking, among others. If your camp is interested in measuring similar outcomes, check out the individual studies to see what tools they used.
  • Camps interested in being involved in research efforts should consider employing diverse methods. Findings from the studies in this year’s forum provided some recommendations to ensure you collect meaningful data, including garnering multiple perspectives (camper, parent, and staff) at multiple time points and using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Based on your own camp’s goals, processes, and characteristics, you may want to check out the full study description of one or more of the individual studies in the 2015 Camp Research Forum in the book of abstracts on ACA’s website. Use the latest research to not only inform your own practice, but also help tell your camp’s story, especially to potential funders. Powell, James, Timmerman, and Garst (2015) argued, “Using references to research studies in funding requests adds a stronger link between theory and practice and demonstrates a higher level of professionalism.”

Ways You Can Get Involved in Camp Research

Utilizing the findings presented in the Camp Research Forum each year is just one of the many ways camp professionals can get involved in camp research. Whether you just want to incorporate others’ research into your practice, talk with other camp professionals interested in research, or get involved in a research study, here are seven ways you can get involved in camp research.

  • Tune in to the latest camp research. Plan to attend at least one session at the Camp Research Forum next year, read the Research Column in Camping Magazine, and check out the resources in the Research area of the ACA website (www.ACAcamps.org/research).
  • Consider what aspects of your own camp program you’d like to know more about. Have you always wanted to better document what campers take away from your programs? Or maybe you want to better understand what parts of your programs are most supportive of camper growth? All research projects start with questions just like these that someone wants to know more about. What are your questions?
  • Check out some of the measurement tools ACA provides to answer the questions you have about your camp. Once you determine what you’d like to know more about, don’t think you have to create your own measurement tools from scratch. ACA has developed a number of tools to help camps measure both common camp outcomes and program processes.
  • Partner with faculty and student researchers at nearby colleges and universities for support. As you can see from the variety of people involved in the Camp Research Forum, there are faculty and students across the country who would love to support your research efforts. You don’t have to go it alone! Reach out to faculty in related departments such as recreation, leisure, youth development, and health, and let them know what questions you would like to answer. Support can take many forms depending on your needs, from developing a research concept to data collection, data analysis, and reporting.
  • Utilize the webinars in the ACA e-Institute related to camp research, evaluation, and data collection. Want to build your research and evaluation skills? A number of webinars in the ACA e-Institute under the “Program Design and Activities” category can help you with just that. Check them out here: www.ACAcamps.org/online-courses-webinars
  • Get involved with ACA’s Raise the Bar initiative. Raise the Bar is a supportive, inclusive, and grassroots network of camps interested in measuring the outcomes of the camp experience. By joining the initiative, you can become part of a cohort of camps who support each other through the trials and triumphs of research, regardless of stage of the research process in which you presently find yourself. The next deadline for camps to apply to join ACA’s Raise the Bar initiative is September 30, 2015. Find more information about the initiative on the ACA Raise the Bar website (www.acaraisethebar.com/) and in the January/February 2015 issue of Camping Magazine
  • Share what you know. Are you already conducting research or systematic evaluation at your camp? Camp research is only useful as far as it’s shared. Submit your camp research for publication in the Research Column of Camping Magazine (www.ACAcamps.org/research/column-submissions) and for inclusion in the 2016 Camp Research Forum at the ACA 2016 National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

The future of camp research looks bright and will be even brighter as camp professionals and camp researchers work together to generate and utilize meaningful and applicable research efforts. So at whatever level is best for you and your camp, I hope you let your research flag fly!

Many thanks to the following people for the insight they provided for this column: Deb Bialeschki, Laurie Browne, Ann Gillard, Karla Henderson, Ariella Rogge, and Matt Smith. I would also like to thank Mark Roark for his guidance as I’ve transitioned to column editor.

Tracy Mainieri is the consulting editor of the Research column for Camping Magazine. She is an assistant professor at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Her summer camp research focuses on implementation evaluation, civic engagement, and social capital. Tracy can be reached at tmainie@ilstu.edu.



Ball, A., & Ball, B. (2009). Basic camp management: An introduction to camp administration (7th ed.). Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.
*Bennett, T., & Pederson, A. (2015, February). CIT program improvement project. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Browne, L., & Heiser, J. (2015, February). Making a case for university-based camp work as a “high impact practice.” Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Epley, H., Ferrari, T., & Cochran, G. (2015, February). Development of a competency model for a state 4-H camp counselor program. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
Fine, S. (2012). A burgeoning world of camp research. Camping Magazine, 85(5). Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/1209/burgeoning-world-camp-research
Garvey, D. (2006). SEER 2005 closing address: The importance of research and evaluation. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(3), 290-293.
*Gillard, A., & Roark, M. (2015, February). An evaluation of appreciation, possibility, and friendship skills at a camp for youth with illness. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Graber, K. M., Tominey, S. L., Southwick, S., & Mayes, L. C. (2015, February). More than just SeriousFun: The impact of camp on resilience for campers with serious illness. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
Henderson, K., & Scanlin, M. (2004). Information is power: A look at the latest data and emerging trends in youth development and the camp industry. Camping Magazine, 77(5). Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/strategic/cm/0409power
*Hiller, S., Ngo, T., & Novotny, T. (2015, February). A mixed-method evaluation of a psychosocial camp program for children living with HIV in Vietnam. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Lynch, M., Hegarty, C. B., Trauntvein, N., & Plucker, J. A. (2015, February). Assessing creativity via divergent thinking in residential camp settings. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Mainieri, T., & Hill, B. (2015, February). Exploring the use of structured counselor journals as a camp implementation evaluation tool. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Owens, M. (2015, February). An exploratory study: The relationship between developmental outcomes and summer camp activities. Poster presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Perry, C. (2015, February). A peer paradox: Adults’ roles in supporting youth to learn from each other. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
Powell, G. M., James, J. J., Timmerman, D., & Garst, S. P.  (2015). Play at camp: Talking to the funders versus preaching to the choir. Camping Magazine, 88(2), 38-40.
*Powell, G., Malefane, K., & Hou, S. (2015, February). Camp’s sneaky potential: Life skills wrapped up in community. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Roark, M., Rosenberg, D., Christensen, K., & Lindsey, J. (2015, February). Tracking participant gains in problem solving confidence, responsibility, and teamwork over a 32-week program. Poster presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Rogers, M. M., & Arend, L. (2015, February). Effects of a structured reading program on children’s attitudes about reading in academic and recreational settings. Poster presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Sibthorp, J., Bennett, T., & Bialeschki, D. M. (2015, February). Assessing camper outcomes and program quality with ACA tools: Data and implications from 2014. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
Smith, P. (2010). From Peg. Camping Magazine, 83(2). Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/issues/1003/from-peg
*Tsikalas, K., Martin, K., & Wright, V. (2015, February). What keeps us out of the outdoors? Girl Scouts speak out on barriers to outdoor participation. Poster presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.
*Whittington, A., & Aspelmeier, J. E. (2015, February). Measuring outcomes of girls’ participation in camp. Paper presented at the American Camp Association National Research Forum, New Orleans, LA.

*These references indicate the 16 studies included in the 2016 Camp Research Forum