Camping Gives Kids an Endless World of Good

By Henderson, Karla A. | Parks & Recreation, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Camping Gives Kids an Endless World of Good


Henderson, Karla A., Parks & Recreation


Update

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. …

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