Research Reveals the Assets of Camp

by Bari S. Dworken, Ed.D.

Evaluating the outcomes of the camp experience for campers is not an easy task. To better meet the needs of each camper, make decisions on program content and structure, and to receive needed support for your efforts, outcome research should be rigorous, far reaching, and professionally conducted. However, professional research does not preclude the usefulness of basic information that is informally gathered by camp directors and shared with others.

4-H Camps Seek Opinions

Each year, an informal written survey is mailed to campers and their parents at 4-H camps in Connecticut. Recently, the following open-ended questions were asked: "What did your child gain or learn from his/her camp experience?" and "Has attending camp made a difference in your child's life? If so, please explain."

4-H camps chose a unique way of organizing campers' and parents' responses to the survey by examining how the responses corresponded with some of the developmental asset categories identified by the Search Institute, a nonprofit, independent research organization that focuses on the developmental needs of youth.

Internal and external assets
The Search Institute has identified forty developmental assets or building blocks that form a foundation for healthy development in youth. These are categorized as either internal assets or external assets. Internal assets are included in categories of commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity. External assets are included in categories of support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time.

Social competencies
Parents' survey responses indicated that their children gained the most improvement in the area of social competencies. Parents' comments ranged from "my child learned to share experiences, open up in peer discussions, and make many new good friends with whom she still communicates" to "he learned to get along with all kinds of people, to be more accepting, and he has a greater insight into people."

In addition to meeting campers from throughout Connecticut, the opportunity to interact with international staff was viewed as a very good way of developing cultural competence. Parents often mentioned the camp experience as being an important contributor to learning teamwork. One camper said that "you have to respect other people's opinions and feelings as well as your own." Camp provides campers with many opportunities for decision making as a small group as well as making personal choices. "Campers are encouraged to use their initiative instead of the staff taking control of every situation," commented one parent.

Positive identity and values
According to the survey results, campers made great strides in the areas of positive identity and values. A large percentage of the parents reported that their children developed self-confidence as a result of the camp experience. "My child learned to handle new situations, set goals for herself, and has gained a sense of independence," claimed a parent. One camper reported that "camp made a difference by making me braver and able to try new things because no one ever left me out of anything like a sport or activity."

Camp places a high value on caring and community. Campers learn to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for their actions toward others. Camp also provides clear rules and consequences. Campers learn quickly what is expected of them and how they fit into the overall camp community.

Empowerment through caring role models
Studies have shown that the need for young people to have significant adult role models in their lives is essential for a young person's healthy development. Counselors who model positive, responsible behavior have a powerful influence on campers. Caring staff was reported as one of the greatest strengths of the 4-H camp experience. Small cabin groups with small counselor-to-camper ratios enabled youth to have more quality time and attention. Campers learned from enthusiastic staff who loved teaching children new skills. Staff and campers encouraged each individual to do their best.

Lifelong skills
Survey responses indicated that the variety of learning opportunities available was one of the most positive aspects of the camp experience. One surprised camper stated, "You can have a great time without television and video games!"

"My daughter was introduced to things she would not normally have tried," a parent commented.

Camp can give children the opportunity to ride a horse for the first time; scale a climbing wall; canoe; express themselves through art, drama, and music; or just learn to create informal fun. Developing lifelong interests and skills certainly impacts the choices youth make in terms of future careers and how they spend their leisure time.

Promising Results

These positive outcomes are not exclusive to the camps in the 4-H survey. Most camps that focus on creating a meaningful experience for youth yield the same outstanding results. It is important for everyone to understand that the camp experience provides youth with many opportunities for healthy development and can become an integral part of a child's total life experiences.

Bari S. Dworken, Ed.D., works with 4-H camps in Connecticut as an Extension Educator in Organization Development with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. She currently serves on the American Camping Association National Board and chairs several committees within the association.

Originally published in the 2001 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.