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Research notes: what happens to staff at camp?

There is a need for greater understanding of the young adult staff member who, like the camper, is going through personal development while working at camp.

Research suggests that camp participation impacts youth in multiple ways by enhancing affective (self-esteem and self-concept), cognitive (knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes), behavioral (self-reported behaviors and behavioral intentions), physical, social, and spiritual growth (Shepard & Speelman 1986; Gillett et al. 1991; Hopkins & Putnam 1993; Chenery 1994; Brannan & Fullerton 1999; Henderson 2001). Yet, there is still much to learn about the camp experience, especially from the staff perspective. The major focus of research related to camp staff has been on provision of staff training (Powell, Bixler, & Switzer 2003) with a paucity of research on the benefits to the staff (Cartwright, Tabatabal, Beaudoin, & Naidoo 2000; Hanna 1998). The following study was presented at the 2003 Camp Research Symposium held at the American Camping Association National Conference and provides practical applications for camp directors and staff to consider for the current season and beyond.

The Threshold for Staff Transformation: An Ethnography of Girl Scout Camp Staff J. Joy James, Clemson University


Camp touches the lives of all its participants and provides experiences that have the capability to transform people. Most studies of camp focus on the camper. This study reverses the typical research direction by examining the camp experience from the perspective of staff.


The informants for this research were obtained from Girl Scout councils in the Southeast who worked full-time as outdoor program directors/camp directors. The informants' ages ranged from twenty to fifty.


To better understand how camp transforms its staff, this research used ethnography, which approaches research from the perspective of learning and describing culture from the people who inhabit the culture being studied. For this research, a series of ethnographic interviews were conducted. To guide the interview, a framework of questions was set up. General research questions included:

1. Describe camp (people, interactions, and activities).

2. Describe how sisterhood happens between staff at camp.

3. How did you see change in the staff?

After the interviews were completed, the investigator conducted analysis to determine domains that best represented the culture of the Girl Scout outdoor professional (Spradley 1979). Through domain analysis, a theme became evident--transformation became the common thread of the Girl Scout outdoor professional. Based upon initial interviews, this research draws upon anthropologist Victor Turner' ideas of transformation and liminality (Turner 1967).


While the primary purpose of camp revolves around outcomes for the camper, this research indicates that the staff members are benefiting from camp as well. The research findings indicated that experiences such as camp can transform or foster growth in staff (often in subtle ways) and in turn these transformations are passed on to campers. Some of the experiences that contribute to the transformation of camp staff include the camaraderie and friendships of the other staff members, leadership opportunities, and the camp rituals.

Further explanation of the experiences that foster transformation in the staff will put into perspective the usefulness of this research to the camp profession. As the staff comes together in residential staff training, they begin to move through the camp experience together spending twenty-four hours day and night together. In less than three months, staff indicated that this intense time period cultivated friendships that lasted a lifetime. Their daily dealings of living so closely forced each staff member to face both the positive and negative aspects of not only their personality but also their interaction with diverse personalities. These situations forced the staff to face each trail and tribulation daily--unlike any other circumstances prior to or after camp.

Camp offers a tremendous amount of leadership opportunities both for campers and their peers. The informants indicated that these experiences were offered in the safe and supportive atmosphere of the camp community. Personal risks could be taken, and mistakes could be handled. The staff member is able to build his or her leadership skills through actual experience without fear of negative repercussions or embarrassment. Leadership transforms a staff member on personal and professional levels.

The daily and weekly camp rituals also play a part in the transformative experience of camp staff. One example is the ritual of singing songs throughout the camp experience. The leading of silly songs allows for a childlike "goofiness" normally not acceptable for young adults in society. Camp is a world for staff that is betwixt and between (Turner 1967). Most seasonal staff are young adults who are in between adolescence and adulthood. Defining that which is socially acceptable behavior for this "between" stage can be a challenge in their lives outside of camp. However, through camp's rituals, societal roles and behaviors can be attempted and played out through camp's silliness. Camp is a world where the norms of society are turned upside down and inside out into a culture of its own. Through this parody of societal norms and rituals, camp in actuality reinforces the values and expectations of young adults in our society.

Staff come to work at camp for a variety of reasons. In particular, the staff and camp directors see themselves as fostering growth and development in the camper. Yet, while these staff members did not expect to see change in themselves, it was the very thing that happened. These experiences for camp staff culminate into an experience that may alter a staff member's life. Whether it is self-efficacy, a different career path, introduction into a recreational choice, or a change of social group, the camp experience can transform the growth and development of a young adult. Acknowledgement of camp's value to not only campers but also the staff might increase the success of camp.

Through investigating these types of "transformative" experiences, we can begin to understand more of the components that are necessary for providing growth and development to young adults. Camp is planned and implemented primarily for the child, but these findings indicate there is a positive byproduct for the staff as well. This byproduct is a transformative experience for counselors that enhances their development as adults in society. In the past, the focus was on training the staff for implementing camp as well as for the care of the campers. While it has always been recognized that staff are the backbone of camp, often their development into adulthood through the camp experience is overlooked. Redirecting our focus to encompass both the camper and counselor enhances the camp experience for all involved.

Recognition of the impacts camp can have on a staff member will help with staff training, retention, and recruitment. Through exploring the transformative experience from a transitional state, camp administrators can begin to build staff training that supports and enhances the positive culture of camp. A camp director's understanding of the development process of the staff member from adolescence into adulthood will contribute to the quality of the camp for both the camper and the counselor. Through staff growth, better decisions are made regarding the care and safety of the camper. Furthermore, the camaraderie and bonds that are fostered from the transformative experience of camp hopefully lead to both retention and recruitment of staff.

Through investigating these types of "transformative" experiences, we can begin to understand all the components that are necessary for providing growth and development to young people. For some residential camps, the camper remains for as little as three days or as long as eight weeks. However, staff remain over the entire summer. The staff's camp experience and growth could be viewed as a reflection of the camper experience on a much broader scale. Investigating camp through the lens of its staff further validates the all-encompassing benefits of camp.


Cartwright, G. F.; Tabatabal, D.; Beaudoin, M.; and Naidoo, L. (2000). Self-Actualization of Youth in a Summer Camp. Psychological Reports, 87, 729-730.

Chenery, M.F. (1994). Explaining the value of camp. Camping Magazine, May-June, 20-25. Brannan, S. & Fullerton, A. (1999). Case studies reveal camper growth. Camping Magazine, 1, 22-25.

Gillett, D.P.; Thomas, G.P.; Skok, R.L.; McLaughlin, T.F. (1991). The effects of wilderness camping and hiking on the self-concept and the environmental attitudes. Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 33-44.

Hanna, N. A. (1998). Predictors of Friendship Quality and Peer Group Acceptance at Summer Camp. Journal of Early Adolescence, 18(3), 291-318.

Henderson, K. (2001). Camping gives kids a world of good. Parks and Recreation. November, 14-22.

Hopkins, D. & Putnum, R. (1993). Personal growth through adventure. London: David Fulton Publishing.

Powell, G.M.; Bixler, R.D.; & Switzer, D.M. (2003). Informal learning and socialization among new and returning seasonal camp staff. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 21(1), 62-76.

Shepard, C.L. & Speelman, L.R. (1986). Affecting environmental attitudes through outdoor education. Journal of Environmental Education, 17, 20-23.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Turner, V. (1967). The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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.
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Author:Powell, Gwynn M.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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