What are the advantages of youth camps today?

Millennials and post-Millennials alike may both bemoan and celebrate the fact that as children they participate in youth camps and other extra-curricular activities at far higher rates than their Generation X forebears: Some cities in America report over 100% growth in such participation over the past 20 years, and 21st-century lifestyles imply that Canadian kids are surely attending in similar numbers.

But are youth camps really beneficial for a generation who would rather build skills and socialize online? And if so, how much? And of what sorts?

These are the kind of questions that a University of Waterloo research team led by Dr. Troy Glover set out to examine and answer in an extensive four-year study of some 1,288 youths at 17 summer camps in Canada plus input from 65 camp directors as well as 65 camp directors.

The study, Spartanly titled “The Canadian Summer Camp Research Project” (CSCRP), was ultimately published in 2011 and has gone on to become a must-read for Canadian summer youth camp directors.

Phase I: Defining criteria

Rather than semi-arbitrarily and/or derivatively define criteria to measure effect(s) on camp attendees and various outcomes of the camp experience, the U. Waterloo research team began by asking some 65 camp directors from across Canada to describe “what kinds of changes or outcomes they [had] witnessed in their campers over the course of their career[s].” The hundreds of Q&A responses were distilled down into five categories of desirable development to look for:

• emotional intelligence,

• environmental awareness,

• attitudes towards physical activity,

• self-confidence/personal development, and

• social integration/citizenship.

Phase II: Surveying the campers

Canadian summer youth campsAt 17 Canadian summer youth camps, staffers were asked to complete surveys on their campers after the children had spent 48 hours at the camp, with answers given in the classic 1-7 scale running from “strongly agree to strongly disagree.” The same survey was given to the same counselors and assistants at the completion of the camp. These results were in the end compared to measure change in the 1,288 children profiled.

One would naturally assume the results to be a bit biased; certainly the self-interests of counselors (identities kept anonymous or not) would at least subconsciously skew the quite subjective results upward. However, certain expect gender-based biases turned up in proportions typically seen in studies of this sort, thus implying that all aggrandizing of improvement was strictly relative and thus could be accounted for. By the five aforementioned areas of interest, findings in part were as follows. (In parentheses is listed the percentage of campers who showed statistically significant improvement.)

Emotional intelligence (69%). Put another way, sub-concepts explored within this concept were geared to answer the question, “Can camp help children identify and positively handle their own emotions and the emotions of others?”

Interestingly enough, though counselors saw the greatest improvement in this area over the course of a summer camp session, the study data as a whole indicated that essentially no statistical difference could be observed between first-time and repeat campers. This caused a bit of puzzlement to the study authors, who noted that “the improvement to attitudes experienced at camp may not extend beyond the end of the program, or at least not until the following year. There are many possible reasons for this loss of the positive change made at camp […] but further research is required to understand exactly what is happening here.”

Environmental awareness (52%). Easily the least improvement was seen among campers in this category, and perhaps this is down to the fact that 48% of the campers surveyed attended schools – whether or not the camps are ecologically sound, it’s damn tough to teach nature in a domesticated environment.

Beyond actual maintaining of wild natural areas, however, the camp counselors were told to look for “how campers see their own actions” while learning “how to live more environmentally conscious lives.”

Personal development/self-confidence (67%). Perhaps most valuable of the camp-related social skills, camp directors were most effusive on this subject in phase I interviews, often speaking of “the skills children develop at camp and how this skill development leads to greater independence and self-confidence.”

The CSCRP found happily that the youngest kids showed the greatest learning curve – a desired outcome for all stakeholders in summer youth camps, though Millennials are hardly lacking in self-confidence to begin with. The study’s authors noted the “good evidence that positive development occurs as a result of participating in the camp experience.”

Attitude toward physical activity (61%). If the campers’ parents had been surveyed as part of the CSCRP, you could safely bet that this category would be ranked most important. Camp PR is thus certainly accentuates this aspect of the youth camp experience. Study authors and really all those in the youth camp industry in Canada were surely cheered by and interested in the 61% improvement shown here. Notes the study, “Amid growing concerns regarding sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity, this result is indeed significant.”

Social integration/citizenship (65%). With results essentially in diametric opposition to those within the “emotional intelligence” metric, the skills learned within this category overwhelmingly tend to stick with the campers from year to year. As a result, first-time campers see the greatest improvement here: “first-time campers experience greater increases as returning campers will, presumably, already have friends and/or feel a part of the group.”

Few parents would disagree with the assessments handed down in Phase I as to what a summer youth camp should achieve, and most will be reassured by the results of the CSCRP results. However, one must always remember that summer camps vary in quality from site to site. Always check out the individual camp to maximize your son or daughter’s (hopefully beneficial) experience.

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