The goal of the American Camp Association (ACA) is to enrich the lives of children and youth. With more than 11 million campers in the United States, the potential benefits of camp can significantly contribute to Positive Youth Development (PYD). The ACA has been instrumental in addressing key aspects of PYD through the camp experience. Evidence is needed to demonstrate the value of camp experiences to decisionmakers and utilizing aspects of the Youth Outcomes Battery (YOB) can help camps position themselves as an important resource and experience for PYD. This is especially important given the variety of issues facing youth today, such as sedentary lifestyles, access to safe outdoor places for physical activity and outdoor recreation, and school mandates to address socio-emotional learning outcomes among youth.
Camp program evaluations are essential to help with funding, inform stakeholders and provide evidence of what youth gain from camp. Moreover, the context for youth development has changed dramatically during the past 20 years. While the roots of PYD originate from several fields like positive psychology, developmental psychology and prevention sciences, this strength-based approach to adolescent program development has intuitively been used by youth workers in the recreation and leisure field for some time.
Evidence of PYD Outcomes of Camp Experiences
The ACA has been integral in supporting PYD by identifying and documenting outcomes derived from participation in organized camping, such as residential and day camps. In an influential study of camp outcomes, four domains were determined: positive identity, social skills, positive values and spiritual growth, and thinking and physical skills. The ACA research provides evidence that organized camping can contribute to PYD and is a context for developmental change, which helps justify programs and provides accountability to stakeholders.
Camp directors, staff, parents and other stakeholders know the impact camp can have on youth, but this evidence must be augmented to help camps compete for funding and provide evidence for long-term sustainability. The authors of this piece undertook an extensive camp program evaluation to document outcomes of a university-based day camp using the ACA-YOB. The ACA-YOB provides camps and other youth-serving programs with 12 questionnaires that focus on seven to 11 common youth outcomes, including friendship and others. Each of the 12 questionnaires is age-appropriate and can be individualized for camps and other youth programs. The ACA-YOB can be purchased and accessed through the ACA’s website for accredited and non-accredited camps.
The Camper Learner Scale (CLS) was used for the evaluation discussed herein and consists of seven targeted outcomes: friendship, family citizenship, teamwork, perceived competence, independence, interest in exploration and responsibility. The CLS uses a four-point scale that focuses on what children learned during camp. For example, in response to the question, “At camp, did you learn how to be better at making friends,” responses range from 1, indicating “I didn’t learn anything about this,” to 4, indicating “I learned a lot about this [topic].” The CLS comprises 14 questions (best used for 6-11-year-old children) and takes about eight minutes to complete. The other 11 questionnaires in the ACA-YOB vary in length and time to complete. For example, the five-item short version of the Affinity for Nature Scale takes less than two minutes to complete.
Begin with the End in Mind: Using the Outcome-Focused Programming Model
The authors used an Outcome-Focused Programming (OFP) model as the framework for their camp evaluation. The OFP action steps include: being outcome oriented — program goals should be identified and meaningful to the agency, the participants and other stakeholders; having intentionally structured, theory-based program components to address the stated goals; desired goals must be assessed; and requiring an organization to publicize its outcomes. In 2013, camp staff was trained in the OFP model so that program activities would intentionally meet the seven aforementioned target areas.
In 2013, Old Dominion University partnered with two organizations to implement a summer day camp and program evaluation for youth ages 6-11. This ACA-accredited summer camp consisted of eight, one-week sessions and averaged 65 campers per week. Each day of camp was designed using a daily activity form or lesson plan. Using the OFP as a guide, each day the seven ACA outcomes were addressed with OFP recreational activities. The outcomes were integrated into daily program activities — the friendship skill outcome was promoted throughout each day, while the morning plan addressed independence, perceived competence and responsibility, and the afternoon plan targeted teamwork, family citizenship and interest in exploration.
Pre- and post-program scores were collected from 101 participants. Forty-eight percent of the campers were male and the average age of all campers was 8.1 years. Participants attended an average of three weeks, with youth attending an average of 1.5 years. Their average enjoyment level was an eight (the utilized scale was 1-10, with 10 being the most enjoyment). The data from eight, one-week day camps were analyzed using the free ACA-YOB Excel sheet. Once data were entered, the tool automatically calculated the total and produced the percentage of campers who “learned a little or a lot” about the seven outcomes. For example, once all data were entered, the Excel sheet produced the statement, “50 percent of campers learned a little or a lot about the seven ACA outcomes.”
After a brief training, camp counselors, who were mostly college students, administered the ACA-YOB’s Camper Learner Scale questionnaire to all campers for all eight weeks. Overall, 40 percent of the campers reported they “learned a little or a lot” about the seven ACA outcomes. Although 40 percent might not seem significant on the surface, the results gave camp staff a benchmark and goal-oriented direction. For example, with program changes, they aim to increase this outcome to at least 50 percent of campers for the next year. Camp evaluations can also be further analyzed by using the ACA-YOB Excel sheet’s Pivot Table. Camp staff can delve deeper using crosstabs to better understand gender differences in the outcomes targeted through the evaluation.
Suggestions for Data Collection
The CLS is appropriate for ages 6-11, which captured the majority of the campers discussed here. The retrospective design avoids the challenge of giving a “test” before camp and after camp in the same week. However, the retrospective design does have limitations from a research standpoint.
The ACA recommends staff sit in a quiet area, with groups of four or five campers, to help complete the questionnaires. Campers were given individual copies of the questionnaire and a pencil, then students entered the data into the spreadsheet. Further detailed instructions are in the ACA-YOB Handbook.
It was more effective to distribute the questionnaires on colored paper on the last day of camp during a transition period, nested between two high-energy activities, early in the day. Reading the questions to 6-7-year-olds was more effective than having them try to answer on their own.
The Value of Data for Continuous Quality Improvement
This data will be used to more effectively train staff members on intentional programming using the OFP to better target outcomes and enhance processes for effective data collection with youth. This type of data is important to fine-tune the camp experience for repeat customers and it is helpful for strategic planning. Moreover, the finding that individuals who enjoyed camp more scored higher on the CLS is helpful insight for counselors, who often attempt to observe how much campers enjoy themselves. If they can address a lack of enjoyment during camp, and plans are flexible, needed changes can be made.
Below, some additional implementation strategies for success are offered to help practitioners and educators alike:
- Begin with the end in mind. It helps with funding, raises awareness of what outcomes you are programming for and encourages theory-based approaches or established models to enhance agency credibility.
- Carefully choose and prioritize the outcomes you wish to track. It may be unrealistic to achieve a broad set of developmental goals and objectives in a relatively short session of day camp.
- Train camp staff — this is key to success. Staff completed more than 35 hours of training, including topics on OFP and understanding the ACA-YOB Camper Learner Scale.
- Share your results. The authors of this article shared the study findings with parents via an executive summary. The outcomes were also presented at conferences, specifically as a practitioner and academician team. Additionally, kids need to know their input helps with future camps. Outcomes were shared with campers and discussions were held about how the lessons could have lasting benefits.
Overall, evaluating for youth outcomes is a worthwhile endeavor and increasingly important in community parks and recreation.
Eddie Hill is an Asst. Professor at Old Dominion University (ODU). Jean Holt is the Asst. Director of Sports Clubs at ODU. Ron Ramsing is an Assoc. Professor at Western Kentucky University. Jennifer Goff is the Assistant Summer Camp Director at ODU.
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