Camping gives kids an endless world of good – Research: Update

Camping gives kids an endless world of good – Research: Update – American Camping Associations

Karla A. Henderson

The “benefits approach” to recreation epitomized by NRPA’s slogan “The Benefits are Endless” has commonalities with the American Camping Association’s recent marketing slogan of “Camp Gives Kids a World of Good.” These two movements began in a parallel fashion several years ago as these organizations sought to show the value and importance of what their profession does. In today’s society, we recognize that it is not enough simply to say that recreation or camping has positive outcomes for people, we must show what it does and how those outputs occur.

The purpose of this “Research Update” column is to highlight the research of the past several years and the current approaches being used to show the value of organized camping for children and youth. Although parks and recreation departments have not typically administered resident camping programs, the number of day camps and special outdoor activities done with youth from high-risk communities is growing. Therefore, it is useful to describe what research indicates about the outcomes of camping for young people, and to explore applications of this information for youth programming in parks and recreation settings.

Measuring Outcomes

Henderson and Bialeschki (1994) found in a random survey of accredited camps that all of the camps reported doing some kind of evaluation each year. Almost all of those evaluations included staff, administrative, or facility evaluations, while very few examined outcomes of camp. Evaluating operational procedures is relatively easy to do, but evaluating behavior, skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and other attributes campers acquire during or after camp is often difficult. As is true in all human service organizations, camp administrators, as well as their funders, want to show that the resources they spend actually produce both short and long-term benefits.

Numerous challenges exist in studying outcomes or benefits. It is difficult to measure if a camping or recreation program causes a change in behavior. It is even more difficult to measure the changes occurring in a relatively short period of time, such as for a five-day camp experience. Many factors may mitigate what happens to a young person. For example, it is more difficult to measure changes in youth because the rapid developmental changes in the first 15 years are unprecedented compared to other age groups (Sengstock & Hwalek, 1999). In addition, programs often include a wide variety of individuals with varied racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. Little is known about, how outcomes are related to identity characteristics.

Most of us who have been to camp or who have been associated with resident or day camps intuitively know that as one element in a short period of time in a young person’s life, camp may lead to growth for a young person. Research on developmental assets (Leffert, Benson, Scales, Sharma, Drake, & Blyth, 1998) indicated how many different aspects in a community might influence young people. Only a few empirical studies, however, have examined the benefits of camping. Based on the literature to date, this column examines current thought on how resident and day camp experiences can lead to positive youth development.

Deliberate Programming

Camping, like any other recreational or educational endeavor, is not inherently good. Many factors are addressed that result in a camp providing positive outcomes for growth and development. A recent study by Marsh (1999), for example, illustrated this point and provided a basis for examining other aspects of camping outcomes. Marsh reviewed a number of studies conducted in the past 30 years and found they were generally based on small samples in specific camps rather than in a variety of camps. Therefore, Marsh conducted a meta-analysis of 22 studies addressing self-constructs (self-esteem, self-confidence, and other aspects of self). The results showed that camp had a positive influence on self in relatively short periods of time across all age groups, but particularly among younger campers. The other significant conclusion was that camps that focused on enhancing self-constructs were more likely to effect them. Therefore, the intentional and deliberate programming done in camps related to building self-constructs more often resulted in improvements. If, for example, one focus of the camp experience was to help campers become more environmentally aware, this outcome was not likely to happen unless the camp purposely developed a program that encouraged discussions about the environment and the embodiment of environmentally sound practices. In other words, camp staff need to program for the goals that they wish to accomplish.

The finding that an organization must set goals and objectives to achieve particular outcomes is not new. When the outcomes of camping experiences are discussed, they often fall into the broad categories of social, physical, psychological, and spiritual changes. Not all camps focus on all these areas so outcomes will not be the same in all camps. Basic goals do need to be identified so programmers who use camping as a means for positive youth development can begin to identify what they would like to see accomplished (Lishner & Myers, 1997). The results, however, have implications for all aspects of youth development and for recreation programs.

Recreation programs may not be inherently good unless steps are taken to ensure that positive outcomes occur. It is desirable to identify the spectrum of outcomes from a camping experience to determine what other contributions can be made to youth development through camping (Marsh, 1999). The remainder of this column will explore what is known about the outcomes of camping from the non-mutually exclusive psychological, social, physical, and spiritual domains to help parks and recreation providers develop specific ideas to accomplish their goals.

Psychological Outcomes

Marsh’s (1999) analysis examined self constructs overall. Other researchers have examined particular aspects of self. For example, self-efficacy is a person’s perception of their ability to perform a task. If an individual thinks they can do something, they are more likely to succeed in the actual performance. Sekine (1994) studied the self-efficacy changes of school children at a weeklong camping program compared to children that did not participate. This study showed that the children at camp showed significant gains in their locus of control and general self-efficacy. Once self-efficacy has been established, it usually can be generalized to other settings. Therefore, what happens at camp, in terms of building personal confidence, is expected to have some type of carry-over into life beyond the camp setting.

Chenery’s (1991) qualitative study of camps across the United States found that cooperation, getting along, achievement, being allowed to make choices, being pushed to be the best one can be, independence, and teamwork are all related to self-esteem. Children reported they felt free at camp to find out who they were. Chenery’s research showed that many of the activities undertaken at camp lead to youth feeling better about themselves if they are offered as opportunities for young people to both assert their independence and also learn cooperative teamwork.

A three-year study was undertaken to examine inclusionary camping programs by the American Camping Association, the Institute for Career and Leisure Development, and Portland State University (with funding from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) (Brannan, Arick, Fullerton, & Harris, 2000). These researchers found that across the country, youth with and without disabilities made significant growth in their outdoor skills and personal development (e.g., self-reliance, communication, and self-esteem) in resident one-week camps and outdoor school programs. Self-reliance, or independence, was a predominant outcome for youth. This study also showed that while youth with disabilities gained independence, youth without disabilities also improved their social interactions and gained a greater appreciation of people who were different than themselves.

Social Outcomes

Group living in the outdoors has been the hallmark of camping for the past 100 years. One of the benefits of camp is the way that it enables young people working with trained leaders to live and play together. Durall (1997) suggested that young people who attend camp experience beneficial factors that help them move toward healthy social development. If these changes do not occur, then the camp program has not been properly focused. Similar to Marsh (1999), Durall’s study suggested that factors that can be fostered at camp include cohesion, interpersonal learning, and altruism if these aspects are the focus of the camp program.

Similar results were found related to how campers with disabilities participating in inclusive camps gained better social communication skills through camp (Brannan, Arick, & Fullerton, 1997). Improvement in the skills included time spent in appropriate peer interaction and the development of a respect for others. Dworken (1999) also found that campers felt they were learning “people skills” at camp that would be helpful to them in other aspects of life. These campers commented that the skills they learned at camp such as leadership, communication, organization, and decision-making were critical to being able to work with other people.

Physical Outcomes

The health and safety of campers is a primary concern of the camps accredited by the American Camping Association. Healthy physical outcomes associated with camps have not been documented extensively, but a growing awareness of the many issues exists.

A collaborative summer program with a camp component undertaken in rural West Virginia focused on physical, self-esteem, and academic components (Jones, 1996). Evaluation was conducted, and although the results were not conclusive, adjustments were made to ensure that this summer camp experience did address physical dimensions to a greater extent.

Research conducted with inclusionary camping programs (Brannan et al., 1997) showed that camp enabled individuals with disabilities to perform recreational skills at relatively high levels of independence. Further, recent research by Dworken (1999) found that young people thought camp was a safe environment because safety was emphasized. Campers in Dworken’s study said they also felt they were healthier when they were at camp because they ate better, exercised more, were outside in the fresh air, slept better, and enjoyed the pace of life.

Spiritual Outcomes

Spirituality can be defined broadly. In simplest terms, religion is defined as an organized and institutional group experience with accepted faiths and beliefs, and spirituality is a personal belief in something greater than oneself (Henderson, 1993). Spiritual development is also described as a personal, inner sense of the world and the role people have in it (Friedman, 1997). Spiritual well-being may be an outcome that might occur in recreation activities such as camping (Heintzman, 2000). Separation of church and state has been commonly accepted in the United States, yet the tenets of moral guidance needed by young people in particular are important. Although day camps run through public parks and recreation organizations may not have a religious focus, the emphasis on personal and environmental ethics as well as community involvement can be outcomes of camp.

Much of the outcome research about spiritual development in camp comes from personal stories. Techniques can be undertaken in camps to address spiritual concerns related to the natural environment (Henderson, 1993) and the way that people live together (Friedman, 1997). These outcomes should not be overlooked in examining the benefits of camping for young people.

In conclusion, recreation and park departments that administer organized camping can increase program impact by incorporating methods and ideas from the “benefits approach.” While using a benefits orientation requires up-front work, the potential pay-offs are worth it. Striving to provide solid programs that achieve targeted goals can enhance funding, enrollment, and the overall excellence of any organization.


Brannan, S., Arick, J., Fullerton, A., & Harris, J. (2000). Inclusive outdoor programs benefit youth. Camping Magazine, 73(1), 26-29.

Brannan, S., Arick, J., & Fullerton, A. (1997). Inclusionary practices: A nationwide survey of mainstream camps serving all youth. Camping Magazine, 70(1), 32-34.

Chenery, M. F. (1991). I am somebody: The messages and methods of organized camping for youth development. Martinsville, IN: American Camping Association.

Durall, J. K. (1997). Curative factors in the camp experience: Promoting developmental growth. Camping Magazine, 70(1), 25-27.

Dworken, B. S. (1999). Campers speak: New England youth share ideas on societal issues. Camping Magazine, 72(5), 30-34.

Friedman, D. (1997). Encouraging religious and spiritual identity. Camping Magazine, 70(1), 22-24.

Heintzman, P. (2000). Leisure and spiritual well-being relationships: A qualitative study. Society and Leisure, 23(1), 41-69.

Henderson, K. A. (1993). Rediscovering spirituality. Camping Magazine, 65(4), 23-27.

Henderson, K. A., & Bialeschki, M. D. (1994, January). The status of evaluation in ACA accredited camping programs. Proceedings from The Second Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium (pp. 72-79), Bradford Woods, IN.

Jones, D.F. (1996). Enriching the future: Extension youth program in summertime learning. Journal of Extension, 34(3) joe/1996june/a4.html.

Leffert, N., Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Sharma, A. R., Drake, D. R., & Blyth, D. A. (1998). Developmental assets: Measurement and prediction of risk behaviors among adolescents. Applied Developmental Science, 2(4), 209-230.

Lishner, K., & Myers, J. (1997). Building self-esteem through the camp experience. Camping Magazine, 70(1), 35-38.

Marsh, P. (1999). Does camp enhance self-esteem? Camping Magazine, 72(6), 36-40.

Sekine, A. (1994). The effect of camp experience upon the locus of control and general self-efficacy of school children. Bulletin of Institute of Health and Sports Sciences, 17, 177-183.

Sengstock, M. C., & Hwalek, M. (1999). Issues to be considered in evaluating programs for children and youth. New Designs for Youth Development, 15(2), 8-12.

RELATED ARTICLE: Research into action: benefits-focused camping creates opportunities for kids.

The use of the outdoors for recreation and camping programs is on the rise. Several conclusions may be helpful to recreation professionals to keep in mind as they provide camping programs and measure the “world of good” that occurs. The most general implication of the findings is that camp program planners need to be aware and explicit about their mission and goals. The mission and goals need to drive the design of programs, methods, and evaluation in order for kids to obtain the desired benefits.

How this information could be used

Camping for children is not inherently good unless the camp program is designed with particular goals and objectives in mind. In other words, deliberately programmed to address the benefits of camping.

Staff should carefully consider what the expected outcomes are for campers and then design activities and programs to address those outcomes. Further, if we want to know if particular outcomes have been reached, evaluation efforts should also focus on measuring the goals and objectives that were established.

For camping to produce outcomes, leaders must be trained to know what the intended outcomes of camping are, how to implement programs to address those outcomes, and how to measure expected outcomes. These concepts should be incorporated into staff training programs. All staff should be able to articulate the program goals, describe how they are implemented, and be involved in evaluating whether they have been reached.

Camp programs have the potential to address psychological, social, physical, and spiritual domains if those areas are the intended goals. Professionals working with camps should determine which area(s) they wish to address. In addition, they should determine what evaluation information is needed by stakeholders (e.g., City Councils, funders, community citizen groups) so that the domains can be measured appropriately.

Evaluating outcomes in camps, as well as in other informal educational and recreational activities, is a challenging process. Measuring some of the outcomes is difficult due to lack of good instruments and the short-term nature of camping. These challenges, however, should not prevent practitioners from trying to evaluate the outcomes and outputs of camp. As time goes on, better approaches will be developed as we learn more about how goals, programs, and evaluation connect to one another.

People with disabilities can experience the same outcomes of camps as other individuals. Inclusive camping programs should be developed that address the similar and distinct needs of a variety of individuals.

The American Camping Association ( is currently undertaking a major initiative to assess the outcomes of a variety of day and resident camps that represent the public, not-for-profit, and private independent sectors of camping. As this organization proceeds in their major national study, more information about outcomes will be available as well as tools that might be used in other camps to address outcome measurement.

Henderson is professor and chair in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been on the Board of Directors of the American Camping Association and is currently a member of the ACA Research Committee.

Research Update is edited by Cheryl A. Estes, Ph.D., assistant professor in recreation and leisure studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

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