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Investigating what happens at camp: research notes.

Look at a camp brochure or Web site, listen to a satisfied camper or parent, watch a video ... we all make claims about what the camp experience will be for the participants. We are accustomed to collecting testimonials, smiling photographs, heart-warming stories, and witnessing the growth in campers and staff first-hand. But, as we begin to take a more critical look at the experience of the participants, sharpening some new tools may allow us to understand the experience and teach us things that will help us improve the quality and depth of the positive potential. More work needs to be done to explore and substantiate the benefits associated with summer camp employment. The following studies were presented at the 2004 Camp Research Symposium held at the American Camp Association National Conference and provide practical applications for camp directors and staff to consider for the current season and beyond as we seek to better understand what happened to children at camp.

Conducting Online Camp Research

Lisa J. Meltzer

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia


Research examining the psychosocial benefits of summer camps for children with chronic illnesses is limited and largely anecdotal. The first part of this study examined two concepts that have been infrequently considered in camp literature--quality of life and social comparisons. Bringing together children who have a similar illness at camp provides an opportunity for campers to see how other children with their illness are doing, in terms of physical, emotional, and social functioning. By comparing themselves with other kids who understand the "illness experience," it is possible that a child's quality of life will improve. However, camp research can be challenging as no one wants to interfere with the child's camp experience and opportunity to just have fun. In addition, conducting research by postal mail or telephone before and after camp can be costly and yield significant missing data. Therefore, the second part of this study examined the usefulness of the Internet as a less expensive and more comprehensive way to collect data across multiple time points.


This study sought to learn:

1. if quality of life will improve after one week of summer camp;

2. if quality of life will be related to the frequency of social comparisons; and

3. if the Internet will provide a useful way to collect camp data at multiple time points.

Sixty-four children who attended the Boggy Creek Gang Camp (BCGC) in the summer of 2003 participated in the study. A letter describing the study was sent to parents of campers one-month prior to camp. A unique numeric identification number was included in the letter for the child to use when he or she logged onto the study Web site. If the child did not have Internet access, but wanted to participate in the study, the child returned a pre-paid postcard and was sent the questionnaires by postal mail. Follow-up data collection occurred one-week and two-months after camp, with letters sent to participants at each time point. The children completed the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory (Varni et al., 1998) that measured the core physical, mental, and social health dimensions as defined by the World Health Organization, and a social comparison scale that explored about the frequency of, need for, and direction of social comparisons (upward/downward). Participants were 61 percent female, 70 percent Caucasian, and 89 percent return campers. Ages ranged from thirteen to seventeen years.


Within-subject repeated measures ANOVAs were used to examine changes in quality of life over time, and correlation analyses were used to examine the relationship between quality of life and social comparisons. The results documented that the quality of life significantly improved one week after camp. However, this change was not maintained two months after camp. The quality of life was significantly related to the frequency of upward social comparisons, with those who reported a poorer quality of life reporting more frequent comparisons with those who are "better off." Summer camps for children with chronic illnesses can help to improve perceived quality of life, likely through the use of social comparisons.

Part 1. Quality of Life and Social Comparisons

What did this study find?

The first part of this study examined the impact of camp on perceived quality of life (QOL). The findings suggest that campers report improved QOL one week after camp. However, two months later, they returned to their pre-camp QOL.

What explains these results?

One reason perceived QOL may have changed is because a disease-specific camp allows for more realistic comparisons with other children. These comparisons lead to decreased social isolation and increased selfcompetence. This applies to the three QOL areas--physical functioning, emotional functioning, and social functioning. For example, camp provides kids a chance to realize that although they may be physically weaker than their "normal" school peers, compared to a child with a similar illness, their physical functioning is not so bad.

What does this mean for camp professionals?

* Camp improves a child's quality of life. This study provides empirical evidence for one more reason that camp is not only good, but also a worthwhile investment. You can take data like this and from other research studies to potential donors who say "show me the data." With camps competing for limited resources, you need to be armed with facts that demonstrate why your organization is the best!

* More experiences that bring similar children together are needed during the year. The fact that these results were not maintained suggests that children need more opportunities to be exposed to similar others throughout the year. These "booster sessions" can include weekends, social outings, or singleday sessions.

Part 2. Using the Internet to Conduct Research

The Internet survey yielded a 40 percent response rate with no missing data. This rate is higher than previously reported mail survey studies, and the data was likely to be more accurate as there were no missing responses. This study provides support for using the Internet as a way to conduct camp research. In 1985, only 8 percent of homes in the United States had personal computers, and the Internet as we know it did not exist. In 2001, 66 percent of the United States population used a computer at home, work, or school, and 56 percent of the U.S. population used the Internet.

Pros of Internet Research

1. Does NOT interfere with the camp experience. This study demonstrated that the Internet could effectively be used to collect data before, after, and at a follow-up point in time. This was done without disrupting the camp schedule, interfering with first-day registration, or with the camp program in any other way.

2. Less expensive than other methods. The cost of conducting online research is significantly less than mail or telephone surveys. It has been suggested that postal mail surveys cost almost $2 a unit. The 2003 Summer Research Study (SRS) would have cost approximately $576 if it had been done with a mail survey. Web surveys cost a fraction of that, including the cost of Internet access and survey services. The 2003 SRS cost less than $50 to conduct (Internet access was already paid for and the survey service cost $9.99/month), a savings of $526!!

3. Survey completion. It is possible on Internet surveys to require participants to answer every question before they can continue. In addition, participants can give only one answer per question. Finally, the data is downloaded directly into a spreadsheet or data analysis program. All of this results in errorfree data, with no missing responses.

4. Increased response rate. This study found a 40 percent response rate, which is significantly higher than previous mail survey studies that have found an 18-30 percent response rate. This is important as well if you are trying to collect end-of-the-summer feedback forms from campers, counselors, and staff.

Cons of Internet Research

1. Sample bias. Internet users are not representative of the population as a whole. However, by including an alternate way for participants to be included (e.g., returning a postcard and receiving the survey by mail), all campers have the opportunity to participate. 2. Outside influences on findings. By doing a study on the Internet, the researcher has less control over the testing environment and other factors that may influence a child's response (e.g., a parent looking over the child's shoulder).

Photovoice: Empowering Campers and Strengthening Camp Communities

Jennifer Johnston,

M. Deborah Bialeschki and Dawn Ewing

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Morry's Camp


The purpose of the project was to empower young people to reflect on their camp experience and to collect qualitative data from campers about that experience. The focus was to gather information from the campers' photographs, discussions, and writings about the aspects of camp that are most meaningful to them. Forty-five rising seventh-grade campers at a residential camp in New York were chosen to participate in the Photovoice project during the summer of 2003. All campers are from inner-city, lowresource neighborhoods.


The Photovoice technique was developed by Caroline Wang, a public health researcher, as a "method that enables people to define for themselves and others, including policy makers, what is worth remembering and what needs to be changed (Wang 2003)." The goals of the methodology are to give people the opportunity to express their ideas about their communities, facilitate discussion about personal and collective experiences, and impact decision-makers, through imagery (Wang et al., 2000). It is based on Paulo Freire's empowerment education, which uses discussion to foster critical consciousness about one's life experiences (Freire 1970). The project asked participants to express what camp means to them and how they generalize camp lessons to their home environments. Each child received two disposable cameras and each group had one camera to share. The campers participated in discussion sessions, writing exercises, and the creation of photography displays. Over a three-week period, campers in Session 1 attended five single-gender workshops. Adjustments were made to the schedule after Session 1 to make it more fast-paced. Session 2 Photovoice consisted of four single-gender workshops over a two-week period. The campers in Session 1 chose to photograph the topic "What I like about camp" and Session 2 campers chose "What is special to me at camp." The campers were also given cameras to take home and asked to photograph things that reminded them of camp and the lessons they learn at camp.

The Photovoice technique empowered campers to use their creative talents and express their ideas in order to show others what camp means to them. Campers chose a theme to photograph and then discussed and displayed their work. This process allowed camp staff and sponsors to learn about the experiences of campers through their photographs, focused discussions, and writing. The information could then be analyzed to determine whether the goals of camp programs are being met. Camp communities can use this method to build their knowledge of how campers perceive the environment. Camper discussions about the photographs and the themes that arise provide a space for young people to think critically about the impact of camp on their lives.

Leading a Photovoice module offers benefits to camps and camp directors such as:

* empowering campers to reflect on their experiences at camp and share their thoughts with peers and adults;

* encouraging campers to learn to express their ideas through photography as well as communicate through writing;

* providing information to camp staff about how programs and the overall camp experience are impacting campers;

* "seeing" and recording the aspects of camp that are most meaningful to campers;

* offering insights into how to improve programs, use staff time most effectively, and allocate funding;

* generating images and written materials that can directly show new camp families; and

* sponsoring how camp impacts the lives of young people.


Once the photographs were developed, the campers talked about why they chose to take each picture, did writing exercises, and created exhibits to display. The project also had a take-home component. The campers were asked to bring cameras home and take pictures that reminded them of camp or the lessons they learn there. The campers' writings, photographs, and discussions were coded and grouped into themes. The five main themes that arose out of the campers' work were:

1. the beauty of the natural environment;

2. the great places at camp;

3. the people, particularly the staff and older campers who are role models and Camp Little Siblings who provide the opportunity to be role models;

4. parts of camp life, such as swimming, music, teamwork, and things only available at camp; and

5. feelings, such as the people are fun, nice, and helpful and respect and peace are present at camp.

One of the most important results of the project is that the campers engaged in the process and with one another in order to articulate their perceptions of the camp experience.

It became clear by looking at their photos and writings that many of the campers' most meaningful moments at camp are not readily obvious. For example, one theme that arose is the importance of eating meals together in the dining hall. More abstract concepts such as feeling free and having counselors that make them feel safe are also present in many pictures and writings. Beyond statistics and stories told by adults, the photographs and captions written by campers allow outsiders and decision-makers to "see" through the eyes of young people. Photovoice participants were given the ability to change their environment by sharing with others what camp means to them. Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia. Please contact Powell through e-mail,, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.


** Freire, P., (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

** Wang, C. (2003). Retrieved from on April 21, 2003.

** Wang, C., Cash, J. & Powers, L. (2000). Health Promotion Practice. "Who Knows the Streets as Well as the

** Homeless? Promoting Personal and Community Action Through Photovoice." Jan, 1(1): 81-89.

Varni, J. W.; Katz, E.R.; Seid, M; Quiggins, D. J. L.; Friedman-Bender, A.; Castro, C. M. The Pediatric Cancer Quality of Life Inventory (PCQL). Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(2):179-205.
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Article Details
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Author:Powell, Gwynn
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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