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Head, heart, hands, and health developed at summer camp: research.

With 10 million youth attending summer camps annually, which accounts for close to 10 percent of the American youth population, it is important to know how these youths are developing as a result of the summer camp experience. Dickerson mentioned thirty-four years ago that the "consensus that camping is good for the individual appears to have contributed to the scarcity of research in this area (Dickerson 1973)." At a time when accountability seems to be paramount, it is no longer acceptable to just "know" or "feel" that camps do a world of good. The camp community needs a world of data that can move this conversation forward and to a level of accountability.

The body of knowledge regarding positive youth development that occurs as the result of a summer camp experience has been gaining momentum and growing since Dickerson's comment in 1973. The Missouri 4-H research highlighted below makes a significant contribution to this body of knowledge and provides valuable insights for both researchers and practitioners.

An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Life Skill Development in Missouri's 4-H Youth Resident Summer Camps

Research Highlights

4-H campers ages ten to thirteen and their parents were surveyed to determine the effectiveness of Missouri 4-H Camps in developing life skills in youth. The objective of this evaluation was to determine the effectiveness of the 4-H resident camp experience in increasing one particular life skill in each of four areas in the youth who attended. Those life skills are identified as Learning to Learn, Social Skills, Teamwork, and Self-Responsibility (Hendricks 1998). Results yielded the following:

* 72.6 percent of youth and 84.3 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that 4-H camp improves skills in Learning to Learn.

* 84 percent of youth and parents agreed or strongly agreed that 4-H camp develops Social Skills.

* 82.4 percent of youth and 86 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that 4-H camp improves Teamwork Skills.

* 82.4 percent of youth and 80.1 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that 4-H camp improves Self- Responsibility Skills.

* An overwhelming 95.7 percent of youth reported their desire to return to camp next year. Among parents, 99.2 percent stated they were glad they sent their child to camp; 99.1 percent felt the benefits to their child outweighed the cost.

The survey instruments and process have proven to be useful, with high dependability across diverse camp settings and staff configurations.

Camp has been a mainstay of Extension 4-H Youth programs for nearly a century. As a public entity, 4-H and the Land-Grant University system are asked and expected to show proof that the youth development programs are indeed doing that--developing youth. There is abundant anecdotal evidence and testimony that the camp experience in 4-H is a powerfully positive, sometimes even life-changing experience for many young people (Garst and Bruce 2003).

Each summer, University of Missouri Extension sponsors several 4-H resident camps throughout the state of Missouri. The curriculum for these camps focuses on the development of a spectrum of life skills relating to Head (managing and thinking); Heart (relating and caring); Hands (giving and working); and Health (living and being).

Research Process

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs, two surveys were developed by University of Missouri Extension youth development specialists and the UMKC Institute for Human Development. All documents and the administration process were approved by the University of Missouri--Columbia Social Sciences Institutional Review Board for Human Subjects Research.

Camper- and parent-survey questions focused on identifying perceptions of each group regarding 4-H camp's affect on behavior and skills in the four life skills areas targeted. Both the camper and parent survey asked similar questions so comparative data could be gathered. Questions were to be rated Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree. Qualitative data were also gathered regarding perceptions of the most important aspects of the camp experience.

Campers ages ten to thirteen (n = 426) were surveyed on or about the last day of their three- to four-day camp experience; parents (n = 119) were surveyed several weeks following.

The Youth Survey was developed at the fourth grade reading level and piloted with a small group of fourth and fifth grade youths. Both camper and parent scores demonstrate high levels of data reliability. Camper data scored 0.874; parent data scored 0.865 using Cronbach's Alpha Scale.

Results and Discussion

The evaluation of Missouri's 4-H Resident Camp program was positive. The vast majority of parents and youth reported that the 4-H camp experience clearly develops life skills.

In the quantitative and qualitative sections of the surveys, both youth and parent respondents were highly positive about the overall experience of campers. Campers stated overwhelmingly that they wanted to return to camp next year and parents indicated strongly that their child's self-confidence improved and that the benefits of their child's attendance at 4-H camp outweighed the cost. Finally, parents overwhelmingly stated that they were glad they had sent their child to 4-H camp. In fact, this single statement by parents showed the most positive response of all questions asked in the parent survey, with 99.2 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing.

Practical Applications

* This survey has been proven as a measure of parent and camper perceptions of the effectiveness of the camp experience in increasing certain life skills in Missouri 4-H campers.

* The survey and process is age appropriate and valid in evaluation design and process for measuring the increase in life skills attributed to youths' participation in 4-H camp.

* It is likely to be equally valid with any other camp.

* The survey and process has been academically reviewed and approved, meeting high ethical standards for use with children and their families.

* The results of this study can be used for marketing purposes highlighting the effectiveness of camp programs in increasing life skills in youth.

* The results of this study can be used as concrete proof for decision-makers and parents that camps serve a greater purpose and have a greater impact than they may imagine--that camp is more than just fun and games.

* The data sets of this study can be further analyzed to answer a number of research questions, including the following: Are there differences in responses based on the camp attended? Is there a correlation between responses and camp/staff ratio or camp staff education level? Between responses and length of stay at camp? Between responses and number of years of camp attendance? Those are a few of many possible questions for future research.

This study has proven that campers perceive value in their camp experience in terms of life skills development. The values identified by the youth at the close of camp are retained and are observed by the parents at home in the weeks following camp. This evaluation process is an effective one, and may lend itself easily to replication in other camping programs.


* Dickerson, L.T. (1973). The relationship of the Youth Conservation Corps experience to Selected dimensions of adolescents self-concept. Dissertation Abstracts International, 34 (12-B, Pt 1), 6096-6097.

* Garst, Barry A. & Bruce, F. A. (2003). Identifying 4-H camping outcomes using a standardized evaluation process across multiple 4-H educational centers. Journal of Extension. 41(3), Retrieved 12/20/2005 from

* Hendricks, P.A. (1998). Targeting life skills model. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension. Retrieved September 1, 2005 from

Consulting Editor

Jeff Jacobs, Ph.D., has thirteen years of experience as a camp director and currently serves as an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University. His research and teaching focuses on outdoor and camp leadership. He can be reached at

Michelle Klem, University of Missouri Extension 4-H youth development specialist, holds a master's degree in parks, recreation, and tourism and co-chaired the Missouri 4-H Camping Evaluation Project. She can be reached at

Don Nicholson, University of Missouri Extension 4-H youth development specialist, holds a master's degree in adult and higher education and was a member of the Missouri 4-H Camping Evaluation Project team. He can be reached at
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Article Details
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Author:Klem, Michelle; Nicholson, Don
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:May 1, 2007
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