Research sheds new light on benefits of camp experiences, helps parents select ideal camps
CLEMSON — For years, children’s camp directors and counselors have championed the positive aspects of camping and attempted to reframe it as much more than an extended version of day care. Those directors and counselors no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence to back up their claims as researchers are revealing the benefits associated with camp experiences like never before.
Barry Garst, associate professor of youth development leadership in the Clemson University parks, recreation and tourism management department, examines the camp experience from multiple angles, and he said his research shows camping has a positive effect on child development and provides long-term benefits for campers.
“Camping experiences push a child’s boundaries in the best way possible,” Garst said. “While camping can build self-confidence and improve how a child feels about themselves, the positive impact camping has on other aspects of human development shouldn’t be overshadowed.”
According to Garst, camp experiences have a positive effect on social skills and give children a sense of independence because they encourage them to be responsible for themselves and to be more open to new and different experiences. Camp experiences push kids out of their comfort zones. In addition, programmatic elements in camps, such as skill-building and decision-making exercises, have a positive, measurable impact on children.
Garst said the immersive nature of camps — especially overnight camps — is crucial to these experiences “sticking.” He said kids benefit from contact with peers and supportive, caring relationships forged with adults at camp. The benefits are shown to be magnified when these relationships aren’t interrupted at the end of the day when they would typically return home. It’s human nature to be more aware in new situations, so making the camp experience continuous boosts already positive effects.
Garst’s research into the long-term effects of camp experiences on positive development demonstrates the benefits are anything but short-lived. In surveys with camp alumni, the majority of responses indicate that camp experiences were critical for their success as adults. One study co-authored by Garst found female camp alumnae are more likely to end up in management and leadership-related positions later in life.
“The leadership skills developed through camp experiences map strongly to the 21st century skills that are found to be lacking in many employees, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and communication,” Garst said.
Employers may enjoy the fruits of the camp counselor’s labor in the long term, but parents get to enjoy those benefits almost immediately upon the camper’s return home. According to Garst, a camp serves the parent as a customer as much as it serves the child, so the parent’s relationship with the camp may be equally important.
This is why the well-informed choice of a camp made by a parent ultimately has the most impact on the quality of their child’s experience. According to Leslie Conrad, director of the Clemson University Outdoor Lab, parents usually ask about supervision ratios, staff hiring processes, available medical care, activities offered and whether or not the camp will match a child’s interests and abilities.
Conrad recommends that parents first check that the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association. The Clemson Outdoor Lab, like all camps accredited by this association, must undergo a thorough review of their operations. The association website offers a “Find a Camp” tool that allows parents to search for camps and filter that search by criteria including geography, cost, activities offered and whether or not the camp accommodates disabilities.
“Our policies, procedures and practices are designed to meet these industry-accepted standards,” Conrad said. “This requires a peer-reviewed onsite visit every three years and a statement of compliance during off years.”
(In addition to those at the Outdoor Lab, Clemson University offers several camps, including educational, athletic and outdoor camps. For a full listing, go to the Camps and Youth Programs webpage.)
Garst also recommends that parents schedule a pre-camp conversation with the director of the camp on such topics as child discipline, policies on electronic devices and parents’ access to children during their stays. Many camps offer tours and even overnight camps for the entire family to ease the transition. Garst said these issues can cause just as much anxiety in parents as their children, and he has studied parental anxiety and how camps can address it.
“If a camp makes parent involvement a priority and gives parents a window into their child’s experience either through social media or enhanced parent communication, that can go a long way in reducing anxiety,” Garst said. “A quality camp will make a reasonable effort to balance parents’ concerns with the camp’s own values.”
The final piece of the puzzle Garst recommends parents take into account is the camp’s strategy for transitioning the child back home while building on the development they enjoyed in camp. He said some camps accomplish this through a “skill scorecard” they supply to parents that shows parents what their child learned at camp and encourages after-camp followup by parents.
“If the child exhibited leadership skills at camp, a parent can encourage them to put those skills into action in their school, community or faith-based institution,” Garst said. “Parents are an important factor in whether or not the lessons learned in camp leave a lasting impact.”