American Camp Association

Camp and youth development outcomes

The camp experience offers children a chance to belong, learn, and contribute.

Parents want the best opportunities for their children. They want them to have whatever it takes to be happy and successful — good health, ability to get along with others, thinking and problem-solving skills, a good self-concept. Children need resiliency skills: self-esteem, life skills, self-reliance and prosocial behaviors. The camp experience offers a nurturing environment away from the distractions and, in some cases, hostile environment of the city.

Peter Scales, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Search Institute in Minneapolis. A noted educator, author and psychologist, Dr. Scales says, "Camp is one of the few institutions where young people can experience and satisfy their need for physical activity, creative expression and true participation in a community environment. Most schools don't satisfy all these needs."

In recent years, camps have put a greater emphasis on what leaders in the child development field have been saying about the needs of children today. Camp activities and group living in a natural environment are the tools used to create camp communities that provide for successful, healthy development and a place where having fun is a daily criterion. In such a structured environment, children interact with positive role models who have time to listen, talk, relax and reflect. They learn to work together, make choices, take responsibility, develop creative skills, build independence and self-reliance and gain confidence. All are necessary steps on a child's path to a healthy, productive life.

Advice from the experts

The camp experience is recognized by child development professionals as valuable in helping children mature socially, emotionally, intellectually, morally and physically.

"The building blocks of self-esteem are belonging, learning and contributing. Camps offer unique opportunities for children to succeed in these three vital areas and even beyond home and schools," says Michael Popkin, Ph.D., a family therapist and founder of Active Parenting.

"The biggest plus of camp is that camps help young people discover and explore their talents, interests, and values. Most schools don't satisfy all these needs. Kids who have had these kinds of (camp) experiences end up being healthier and have less problems which concern us all," says Scales.

Child development experts endorse concept of camp as "community" for children

Noted experts in child development have expressed their thoughts on summer camp as a valuable resource for giving children the value of belonging to a community of their own. This position is being forwarded by the American Camp Association, which believes that the critically important sense of community for children is rooted in enabling and empowering children to be belonging, cooperating, contributing and caring citizens.

Bruce Muchnick, a licensed psychologist who works extensively with day and resident camps, says, "Each summer at camp, a unique setting is created, a community is constructed that allows participants to get in touch with a sense of life that is larger than one's self. The camp community seeks to satisfy children's basic need for connectedness, affiliation, belonging, acceptance, safety and feelings of acceptance and appreciation."

Bob Ditter, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child and adolescent treatment, adds, "It is in the crucible of this community that children gain self-esteem with humility, overcome their inflated sense of self and develop a lifelong sense of grace and wonder."

Michael Brandwein, a noted speaker and consultant to the camp profession, continues, "What makes camp a special community is its focus on celebrating effort. In this less pressured atmosphere, children learn more readily what positive things to say and do when they make mistakes and face challenges." Brandwein also says, "The traditions and customs of each different camp are like a secret code that allows those who know it to feel embraced by something unique and special."

He continues, "Campers are urged to include, not exclude, others. They are praised for choosing new partners and not always the same ones. They are encouraged to respect the differences between people. In an increasingly sarcastic, put-down-oriented world, camps aim to be an oasis of personal safety where demeaning comments and disrespectful behavior are not tolerated, and children are taught responsible and positive ways to resolve conflicts."

Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chair of America's Promise Alliance, has his own perspective on the value of a summer camp experience for children: "It gets them away from a neighborhood or situation that may exist in their neighborhoods that isn't healthy...It teaches them how to get along with other people — both other young people as well as adults. To give our children a safe place to learn and grow — camp does that." 

© 2005 American Camp Association Inc. Founded in 1910, the American Camp Association is a national community of camp professionals and is dedicated to enriching the lives of children and adults through the camp experience.