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Let's build upon the positive outcomes of camping

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgHappy birthday to camping! Over the past 150 years of organized camping in the United States, we as a field have done a good job of transforming camping into an educational experience in outdoor group living with measurable positive outcomes. Research shows that a well planned youth camp improves self-esteem, environmental awareness, peer relationships, and has other measurable positive outcomes. However, we often leave these outcomes at camp, and fail to build upon it. By thinking of camp as a stand-alone, situational learning experience, we miss an opportunity to capitalize on the gain. How can we make the most of what we work so hard to achieve at camp?

As anyone who has been to summer camp knows, the camp experience can be a rich and memorable one. These can be profound experiences for youth, producing lasting memories. Research shows numerous positive outcomes for youth who participate in organized camping opportunities. Among them are:
  • Self-esteem
  • Peer relationshipsboy-in-canoe.jpg
  • Independence
  • Adventure and exploration
  • Leadership
  • Environmental awareness
  • Friendship skills
  • Values and decisions
  • Social comfort
  • Spirituality

Positive youth outcomes at camp and how to achieve them are well researched and well documented. For example, in the current issue of New Directions in Youth Development Garst, Brown and Bieleschki write, "Positive outcomes do not just occur because children attend camp; these desired outcomes must be planned, measured, and then incorporated into future program planning efforts."
I think we have not paid enough attention to this last part - incorporating the positive outcomes into future program planning efforts. I believe that we can. In 4-H, we use the experiential learning model to guide our facilitation of learning. However, we often think of the process - experience, share, process, generalize, apply - only in the context of the immediate experience.

Using the experiential learning model, we should intentionally be building in strategies to extend the learning and benefits of these developmental outcomes beyond camp. Are there ways to encourage youth beyond camp to continue reflection, generalizing, and applying? The memories of camp are long-lasting, powerful, and episodic and if we can re-activate and reflect over and over to deepen and enhance the learning years later imagine the influence and strength of these developmental outcomes.
One strategy for intentionally pulling outcomes beyond camp is to involve parents and caring adults in re-learning from the camp experience in the years afterward. To do this, we need to prepare caring adults to know when it is appropriate and beneficial to tap these memories of youth.

-- We must provide these adults with knowledge about the camp experience, especially memorable events, milestones for their youth, important values, traditions, etc.

-- Second, parents and other caring adults need to know how to intentionally facilitate movement through the experiential learning cycle. These may be questions found in "Questions for Guiding Experiential Learning", an Extension field guide.

Do you have other strategies for bringing reflections of camp experience into the future? How do you extend the wonderful benefits of camp?

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  1. Rebecca, you've provided us with some wonderful new resources to bolster people's interest in camp. Also some excellent research facts to use in promoting camp experiences to young people, families and the public.
    Of course, I just plain believe in camp! But that's not research -- that's my personal experience speaking. Camp means different things to different people, largely based on their own personal experiences. So we've learned we can't sell the ambiguous idea of "camp" as a youth development experience to people who have never experienced it. We have to have these more clear outcomes.
    It is interesting to note that the ACA study finds that "camp worked" but not "how camp worked." It's going to take more study to discover what it was about camp that stimulated change. So that's the next challenge -- a challenge most youth programs face. ACA is going to do more research, and they're going to focus on relationships. I'm with them on that. If I had to vote for one intentional feature of camp that would be linked to these positive outcomes, I'd vote for positive relationships. But that's just my opinion -- not research! Let's keep our eye on what they learn next.

  2. Hi Becky –
    As I read your blog, I find myself enthusiastically nodding my head in agreement. As an educator, I have observed the positive impact camp experiences have on youth. One impact in particular is how camping experiences help youth develop interpersonal and intercultural relationship skills. I have seen youth from diverse backgrounds come together through camping and in result, form lifelong meaningful relationships and expanded worldviews. Watching that natural course of development, inspired me years ago to think intentionally about building inclusive learning environments in camps and other youth programs as well.
    Simply put, nonformal learning environments are ideal opportunities for youth to develop interpersonal and intercultural relationships with their peers.
    Thanks for the blog!

  3. Thank you Joyce and Jennifer for your thoughts. I think the focus on relationships is so critical and also essential. Camp is a place where youth can develop socialization skills, build their confidence and independence, be outdoors and interact with role models. In many ways the camping context allows youth to interact with one another on a more level playing field. It becomes an opportunity for a young person to identify "this is who I am" and is accepted into the community. Camp is often described as being a family, or a close-knit community and these relationships can endure for a lifetime. From your own experiences, what strategies are important to not only build on these positive relationships developed at camp but also on extending all outcomes beyond the immediate camp experience?

  4. Hi Becky -
    One strategy that comes to mind is the incorporation of youth camp counselors. Their training can include the importance of relationship building and they can be involved in creating an inclusive learning environment that helps campers build positive intercultural and interpersonal relationships.
    When I worked with youth counselors, I talked with them about the grand opportunity we had before us to build such a learning environment. Once the seed was planted, the counselors became very excited. Also, I found it to be essential to have diverse group of counselors so we could model inclusiveness in multiple ways. Sometimes camps can get kind of cliquey or bound by traditions that become exclusive; so in my experience, I found it to be important to think about inclusiveness at every level of building the camp program and its learning environment.

  5. I'm with Jen on the inclusiveness emphasis. The whole topic of relationships is full of "who's in, who's out" for many young people. And while camp traditions build cohesion, they can initially identify who's in and who's out of it -- and give insider status to those who already know the ropes.
    I think camp has to intentionally "rebuild the traditions" for every group every year.
    Last year a YDL student did her field experience researching how to organize a cross-age leadership corps -- and then she tested it out at an east coast girls' camp and did some evaluation. She chose the 6-7th age girls she saw most at risk for "being meanies" and involved them in helping younger girls adjust to camp, make friends, develop an older girl friendship, etc. She and her fellow staff members concluded that the effort of concentrating on the one age group to assist another changed many of the exclusionary behaviors they had observed the previous year.
    Over the years, I have observed Camp Sunrise operated by YouthCare. They serve young people from the Twin Cities at a camp on the St. Croix. During the school year, staff keep in touch with the campers, visiting them at their schools for lunch together and having social events and other opportunities during school holidays and such. They work to maintain the bond of friendship and the link to camp values reducing the tendency for young people to simply revert to their regular (sometimes exclusionary) friendship groups once camp is over.

  6. Joyce - I completely agree with you on the notion of "rebuilding traditions" for every group every year. This recognition that each group dynamic for each session will be unique. The emphasis needs to include more than just relationship building as both you and Jennifer point out. Thank you for sharing some additional strategies both for while camp is in session as well as for when camp is over. Another potential strategy for extending the beneficial outcomes of camp beyond the camp experience is to develop the youth capacity for experiential learning after their camp experience. Processing with them to know and understand the steps of the cycle, identify with them their movement through these steps and discuss when they might find it useful to re-tap their memories. What other strategies could we use to extend the outcomes for youth beyond camp?

  7. From the discussions that you've provoked from you post, it seems like there are some similarities between camping and immersion experiences. Can you see how both of these experiences take people from their comfort zones, have an intense "dosage", and usually have some connection to the environment? Maybe that's why both camp and traveling abroad are experiences that people often talk about with such passion. What do you think? I've never really considered the parallels before.

  8. Sam, you[ve brought up a good comparison. The 'mountain top' experiences, including camp, immersion trips, mission trips, etc. are learning environments created to foster nonformal and informal learning opportunities in which youth are so highly engaged in! Many times, the youth are exposed to new knowledge and can test the knowledge out in a safe environment. It is so true, though, youth often leave these experiences and just move onto the next thing in their lives. The learning environment needs to build in the 'what's next?' steps. Counselors, parents and staff need to provide take home applications to the newly acquired knowledge.

  9. Thank you Sam and Nicole for adding to this discussion. I also see the parallels. Nicole you echo my thoughts with the need to "build in the next steps." Have you thought about strategies that can be implemented to making this happen even when youth move on to the next thing in their lives?

  10. When I first thought of this area, I thought of how the camp counselors are those that seem to have the greatest opportunities for extended learning beyond the camp experience. The leadership skill they develop and hone in their counselor roles are often brought to other leadership opportunities such as working with youngsters in Operation Military Kids-supported events. I have seen (in Central Minn.) how cadres of counselors are seen as leaders of their own peer leaders--and are called upon like few others in their peer groups.
    Now if we could bring some of the same kinds of things to the campers.... If we adults who work with club volunteers could help those volunteers to see what kinds of skills and experiences the campers had, perhaps they and the youth themselves could plan ways to bring some of that learning to the club experience. That might entail working with campers at camp and afterwards on specific learning activities that they might lead or demonstrate within their clubs.
    Great topic!

  11. Thanks Becky for sharing this information. The 4-H camping program has been one of our recognized delivery methods for along time in Minnesota 4-H. Heidi brings up a good example of how our model in Minnesota for counselor training provides an investment return with larger public value ((beyond summer camp experiences) for those communities who have 4-H youth leaders with this background training. 4-H has been instrumental in developing the National Camping Institute, which started out under the leadership of our National 4-H camping task force and in the early years hosted by the staff of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. The institute rotates around the country and in 2012 will be hosted by West Virginia.
    The scouting program which bases much of it's local troop youth development activity around camping and related experiences is a good example of taking camping beyond the situational learning experience in an attempt to capitalize on greater gains.
    There seems to be much merit in looking into experiences that scaffold learning and mastery of skills related to the outdoors, leadership skills, science inquiry, civic engagement, healthy living etc. and incorporating our experiential learning model
    There is also evidence that children who are connected to the natural world have advantages in brain development and academic gain in the classroom. Camping programs, especially the immersion type have potential to contribute to here especially for youth who may be having challenges in the traditional school based learning environment. This may be a value added opportunity for camp planning teams who decide to look more intentionally at design of these experiences.

  12. Thanks Heidi and Joe for contributing to and continuing this conversation. I wholeheartedly agree. For those interested, I highly recommend the current issue of New Directions for Youth Development which focuses on "Recreation as a Developmental Experience" and offers an "exploration of meaningful recreation and leisure experiences in the lives of youth and the value of recreation from a developmental perspective." Additionally, the American Camp Association offers a nice research site at
    This is a great discussion. What other strategies can we incorporate to extend the positive outcomes of the camp experience?

  13. This really helps youth to think about positive things. When i was at graduation My university also used to encouraged us to join boot camping to know about the nature and make a unity

  14. Rebecca, I agree wholeheartedly agree with what you have written here! Camping is very important in building confidence as well social skills especially among the youth. I found this post builds upon your thoughts and lists some new benefits as well.


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