Effective Camp Research Project Findings

The Effective Camp Research Project set out to answer: What is the impact of the one-week summer camp experience on the lives of the primary participants and their supporting networks? The project began in summer 2015 at 3 camps in Wisconsin, using the methodology of grounded theory in order to deeply listen to campers, parents, directors, summer staff members, and area church professionals. It was from this deeply embedded research that we uncovered what we call the 5 fundamental characteristics of Christian summer camp: safe, participatory, relational, away from home, and faith-centered. Following the initial research, we began surveying summer campers on the first day, last day, and 2 months following camp to determine growth and lasting impact. We have now surveyed more than 2000 campers at 11 camps in 5 states. It turns out that some effects of the camp experience tend to wear off in the weeks following camp, but there is compelling evidence for lasting change in several camp outcomes. Knowing how your camp is doing when it comes to these lasting outcomes can help you improve your programs, motivate your constituency, and strengthen your partnerships with congregations and families. Learn more here if you’d like the ECRP Research Team to conduct research at your camp, providing you with valuable learning about your context, and offering a greater data set to the overall project.

Phase 2  |  Summer 2016

Summer 2016 Findings Webinar

Full Recording

Executive Summary

This four-page document sums up the important learning from Summer 2016.

Full Report

Read the Full Report, a 21-page PDF detailing the key findings from Summer 2016.

Phase 1  |  Summer 2015

Phase 1 Findings Webinar

Full Recording

Executive Summary

This four-page document sums up the important learning from Phase 1.

Narrative Summary

Read the Narrative Summary, a 20-page PDF detailing the key findings from Phase 1.

Positive Impact of Camp

The Christian summer camp experience directly impacted the participants in empirically recognizable ways, and these impacts extended to their supporting networks.

This is the major finding of Phase one of this project. This finding was clear across all data sources and all three camps. Participants experienced real and identifiable changes that were interpreted in overwhelmingly positive terms. Parents were generally content if their children had fun and were kept safe at camp, though many expressed surprise and joy at camp’s positive impacts. There is evidence that these changes continued after the camp experience. These findings justify a follow-up study to assess the degree and duration of these impacts. The positive impacts varied in degree and type among the participants, indicating that camp does not have a single determinative outcome but rather a set of potential impacts. It is misleading and erroneous to say that the camp experience causes change. Camp is not a magic formula. The data show, rather, that the camp model, when faithfully practiced, opens the possibility for change in individuals and their supporting networks. The degree and duration of the impacts are unique to the individual participants and are largely dependent on their specific life circumstances. The potential impacts are directly related to the five fundamental characteristics of the camp experience.

5 Fundamental Characteristics of Camp

The data suggest that the positive impacts of camp result from a dynamic interplay of five characteristics that can be considered fundamental to the camp model of these three camps. It is notable that a breakdown in one of the five characteristics seems to constitute a breakdown in the model itself, leading to interpretation of the experience as negative or even harmful. These five characteristics have no set order, and they manifest differently in various contexts. The camp model may look very different from camp to camp, from week to week at the same camp, and even from person to person within a single camp group. Context and individual experiences matter. There is tremendous and almost unshakeable buy-in to the camp model among the camp faithful who have witnessed or experienced the impacts. There is also a clear preference for the specific way an individual experienced the camp model. This can lead to a narrow view of what qualifies as camp or the notion that a specific camp is better than all others. These data counter that claim, instead suggesting a highly adaptive model that functions in a space where all five characteristics are present.

1 | Camp is Relational
We’re all so different, but we all came together and it was a puzzle that fit perfectly together. – Lutherdale camper

The entire camp experience is framed in an intensely relational environment that includes living together, meeting new people, practicing reconciliation, and encountering the other in face-to-face interaction. The potential impacts of this characteristic include improved social competency, increased self-confidence, and more positive attitudes toward Christian communities.

2 | Camp is Participatory
They’re teaching us without us knowing that we’re being taught! – Sugar Creek camper

The camp environment emphasizes experience and agency. Participants learn and grow through active, kinesthetic activities. These experiences are multi-sensory and often include new or novel experiences (especially in the outdoors) that participants characterize as fun. Participants even characterized the absence of technological devices as a positive aspect of camp that facilitated participatory encounter. The potential impacts of this characteristic include willingness to try new things, increased creativity, and more positive attitudes toward life.

3 | Camp is Different Than Home
Once you actually get away from your life, you can see a whole different angle, and it can be a lot more fun and exciting. – Lutherdale camper

Camp exists in a set apart location that provides physical and emotional distance from environments that participants consider normal. The differences highlight the special nature of the camp environment and provide perspective on the places participants left behind and to which they will return. The potential impacts of this characteristic include increased independence and differentiation from parents

4 | Camp is a Safe Place
The whole camp is like a huge safe zone. – Wapo camper

The strong sense of safety at camp includes physical safety, but there is a special emphasis on emotional safety. Participants described camp as a place where they could be themselves without fear of judgment or ridicule. The potential impacts of this characteristic that manifest themselves in the data include more positive self-understanding, increased self-esteem, and a desire to seek out safe places and relationships.

5 | Camp is Faith-Centered
Each time you go to camp, you run another mile in your race of faith! – Wapo camper

Faith teachings and practices are not peripheral or intermittent aspects of the camp experience but rather are experienced as intertwined in all other characteristics. The potential impacts of this characteristic include increased frequency of faith practices in the home, stronger identification with faith traditions, and ability to interpret life through the lens of faith.

Conclusions & Next Steps

These findings are not proof of camp’s effectiveness. They provide, rather, a blueprint for future research. The data suggest a specific camp model present at these three camps that is highly adaptive and facilitates empirically recognizable and lasting impacts in participants.
The next step is to expand the number of camps and conduct a quantitative assessment to test the theory of the five fundamental characteristics and to determine the degree and duration of impact. Future studies should assess whether the camp model and impacts are present at camps from other denominations and regions of the country.

Participating Camps

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