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Does Camp Enhance Self-esteem? Good news for the future of camping.

The benefits to youth from camping are well known by former campers, their parents, and camp directors. However, little research is available on the influence that an organized camping experience has on youth, mainly because there seems to be general agreement that camp is good for kids. A recent meta-analysis of the available research determined the state of knowledge on the influence that the organized camping experience has on the self-constructs: self-esteem, self-confidence, and other aspects of self. The results are good news for camping.

Promoting Healthy Youth Development

The development needs of youth have been well defined and include, among other elements, positive adult role models and a positive sense of self. Youth development is the physical and cognitive (or mental) growth of youth between six and twenty-two years old. The constructs of self-concept and self-esteem are considered to be the best indicators for assessing this development or growth. Having positive self-constructs is considered important to healthy development.

Yet, rapid social changes have made it more difficult for today's youth to have experiences that allow them to develop positive self-constructs. Youth and adults interact less frequently because fewer generations live in the home, both parents often work, and many children grow up in single-parent households. Neighborhoods are more transient as well, making it difficult for youth to feel connected to their community. Budgetary considerations have made it difficult for schools to meet both the educational and developmental needs of students. A summary of the research that has been done on camping's influence on youth development needs shows that camping can provide an avenue to effectively respond to these development needs.

Camping Enhances the Self-constructs

The analysis of the available research finds positive and significant results: positive in that the camping experience does enhance the self-constructs of youth, and significant in that the result is not due to chance alone. However, the findings also show that not all camps make a positive contribution to self-constructs. Only those camps that have a focus on self-enhancement as a working part of their programs and philosophy actually contribute to a youth's development of positive self. Furthermore, campers aged six to ten benefit more than older campers.

These findings are in accord with current psychological theory that suggest a positive result for programs designed to have an influence and a greater result for younger as opposed to older campers. The significant influence on the self in the relatively short period of from one to eight weeks, as opposed to several months or longer, represents an exception to current theory about the length of time required in order to have an influence on the self.

Focused programs enhance self

From the findings of this study, one can conclude that an organized camping experience that is focused on enhancing self-constructs does enhance the self. Therefore, the experience contributes to the youth development need of developing a positive self-image.

Research shows that a set of socially desirable outcomes results from enhancement of one's self-constructs. These outcomes include easier adjustment to new environments, a greater sense of personal satisfaction, and personal habits that lead to a healthy lifestyle. If a camp experience enhances self-constructs, then camp is an environment that parents and communities should include in strategies that are designed to meet youth development needs.

Younger campers benefit more

The enhancement of self is greater for younger campers, indicating a benefit to starting camp at an early age, as young as age six. The positive results across all ages suggests that camps with a self-enhancement focus provide for the positive self-esteem development needs of all youth.

The identified development needs of children and early-adolescents suggest that a positive self-image is desirable. Thus, beginning to establish this positive self-image at an earlier age would give an individual a stronger personal foundation. In turn, this foundation would allow the individual to adjust more easily to changes in their personal environment and consequently increase the likelihood of the individual adopting healthy living habits through the difficult period of adolescence.

Camp does give kids a world of good

The significant positive influence on self in a relatively short period of time, across all ages, identifies the organized camping experience as an effective means for parents and communities in order to address the development needs of youth.

The argument for including camps is made stronger through the identification of the positive effect as being applicable across the broad age range of from six to twenty-two years old. Including camps in youth development strategies is further strengthened through the power of the camping experience to generate this effect over a relatively short period of time, ranging from one to eight weeks as opposed to several months or longer.

Adding Self-enhancement to Camp Programs

Camps that offer programs to youth that do not have a focus on enhancing self probably offer the beneficial outcomes that they advertise. Those outcomes have not yet been substantiated through research, and were beyond the scope of this study. These camps can enhance their program outcomes by adopting operational philosophies that address self-development. Camps that add the focus of self-enhancement are then in a better position to participate in community strategies that are designed to address youth development needs. The summer camp program method and philosophy can be utilized in environmental and outdoor education programs throughout the school year. The programming and philosophies can also be applied to after-school programs that address the portion of the day when many youth have unstructured and unsupervised time.

There are common factors that can be identified in the camp programs that have a focus on enhancing a construct of self. The camps with a self-enhancing program provide an environment that is reinforcing to a camper's sense of self. The reinforcement occurs through positive feedback and the general attitude that supports the camper's identity as an individual. This environment of positive interaction is established either by hiring staff with experience or training in development of self-constructs or by developing this sensitivity during the camp's staff training program.

Camps that enhance self also provide an environment in which the camper feels some sense of control over the experience. This control is accomplished by involving campers to some extent in the planning or management of their camp experience. The involvement can be as simple as asking the camper for feedback or input and by responding in a way that demonstrates that the exchange was taken seriously. A camper's sense of control is also based in the understanding of why things are the way they are; "because" is not a sufficient answer.

Camp professionals whose camp's philosophy focuses on enhancing self-constructs can use the positive findings of this study to generate support from philanthropic and other funding organizations and to promote to parents the positive effects of camp programs focused on self-enhancement. By emphasizing the greater positive effect for younger campers, camping professionals can encourage parents to introduce children to camping at an age where the child will get the maximum positive effect from the experience.

In light of the rapid change in American society, the social desirability of self-enhancement, and the identified development needs of youth, these findings can be useful to parents and communities that are interested in identifying experiences that contribute to positive youth development.

Who Participated in the Study?

The overall effect size for this meta-analysis is based on measurements taken from 2,279 campers. The camps included in the study were day and resident camps that had single gender or co-ed environments. The campers ranged in age from six to twenty-two years old and came from many different cultural groups, representing all of the socio-economic brackets. Campers with mental, physical, and emotional impairments as well as campers without impairments were included. The length of the camp sessions ranged from one to eight weeks in length. The camp programs were based on a broad variety of activities from structured learning environments to general camps with no expressed program focus to camps that incorporated enhancement of the self into some aspect of their program and philosophy.

The Research Method: What Is Meta-Analysis?

The first step in this form of research is to identify all the studies that could be located that address the research problem, in this case, camp's effect on self-esteem. A total of sixty-one studies were located for the research. Each study was reviewed to ensure that it was scientifically sound and that it provided a measurement of the change in a camper's self-constructs; this change is called the effect size. Of the sixty-one studies identified, twenty-two studies provided thirty-seven effect-size measurements.

Each of these studies provided an effect size that represented the overall change in the self for a group of campers. To determine the effect size, a researcher would give a questionnaire that measures self-esteem to all of the campers at Camp Summertime on the first day and again on the last day of camp. The scores from the first day would be added together and then subtracted from the overall score for the last day, the difference is the effect size. If the effect size is a positive number, then the overall effect on that group of campers is an increase in self-esteem.

A meta-analysis takes the effect size from each of the studies that can be located and combines them using a prescribed set of statistical formulas and procedures. This combination of effect sizes then yields an overall effect size for the entire group of studies that was located. The overall effect represents an average across all of the camps included in the study. This overall effect is then analyzed by taking out studies based on specific variables, like age or gender, to see if these variables have any influence on the overall effect size. These variables are called moderators.

As an example, an overall effect size could be analyzed to see if single gender camps had a greater effect than co-ed camps. To do this, an overall effect size for the co-ed camps would be compared to an overall effect size for the single gender camps. If the effect size was greater for the co-ed camps, then the researcher would conclude that co-ed camps provided the campers with more self-enhancement. In this study, no difference was found based on single gender or co-ed camps.

Paul Marsh has filled many camp roles, from camper to counselor to food service director to summer camp director. Most recently Paul was a jack-of-all-trades at YMCA Camp Eberhart, where he is a board member. He is currently a private adventure challenge personal growth facilitator and is a camping researcher and consultant. You can e-mail Paul at

Copies of the research for this article entitled "What Does Camp Do for Kids?: A Meta-Analysis of the Influence of the Organized Camping Experience on the Self-constructs of Youth" are available for $45.00, including shipping and handling. Send a check or money order to Paul Marsh, Apt. 6, 1955 N. College, Bloomington, IN, 47404-2452. Please allow four to six weeks for delivery.
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Article Details
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Author:Marsh, Paul E.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:The Future Is You.
Next Article:Camping and Social Capital.

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