DURHAM, N.H. -- Summer camp can do "s'more" than teach kids to canoe, hike, and sing fun songs: New research
indicates that summer camp can significantly enhance the social development of youth.
"Camp can make a critical difference in kids' lives," says Michael Gass, professor of
outdoor education at University of New Hampshire and lead researcher on the project, conducted
in cooperation with the American Youth Foundation at AYF's Camp Merrowvista in Tuftonboro, N.H.
Gass and researchers from UNH surveyed youth between the ages of 8 and 13 at the beginning
and the end of the summer of 2004, comparing the inter- and intrapersonal skills of campers
at Camp Merrowvista with youth who were awaiting attendance in a fall program at Merrowvista.
The summer campers showed significantly greater improvement in a variety of social skills,
including time management, initiating action in new situation, self-confidence, task
leadership, and interpersonal skills.
Gass notes that such social skill development can lead to academic benefits and can build
a resiliency against negative behaviors that may surface later in kids' lives. The U.S.
Department of Education and other experts agree that middle childhood, the age of the youth
surveyed, is a crucial stage at which children need to develop social skills of
self-regulation, empathy, and caring to prepare for beneficial peer relationships and
Gass and the UNH researchers will return to Merrowvista this coming summer to further probe
what about camp seems to provide these social development benefits, but he suspects that
social development is fostered by intentional programming, which infuses traditional camp
activities with guided discussion and reflection. "You can't just assume by sending your kid
to camp that you're going to get these benefits," he says. "Kids left on their own don't just
mature into social development. You've got to intentionally program experiences."
At American Youth Foundation camps, including Camp Merrowvista, "every time they do
something at camp, there's an intentionality toward helping develop stronger kids, socially
and emotionally," says Gass. While most camps hum with "lights-out" chatter, for instance,
each Merrowvista camper "village" uses insight sessions throughout the day led by trained
staff. Such sessions encourage reflection about the day's group dynamics or consensus building
among fellow "villagers."
UNH and AYF will present this research to camping industry peers at the American Camp
Association national conference in February, and AYF will disseminate its programming
philosophy in hopes that it becomes widely adopted among summer camps. "AYF will be publishing
and trying to influence the field with this research," says Gass. In addition to Camp
Merrowvista, AYF, based in St. Louis, operates Camp Miniwanca in Michigan.
Gass, who has worked with AYF for nearly 15 years and is a leading researcher in adventure
programming, offers suggestions to finding a socially powerful summer camp. Accreditation
by the American Camp Association (approximately 1,000 summer camps are ACA accredited) or
the Association for Experiential Education is a good starting point, but Gass encourages
parents to explore the camp's philosophy.
"Is the purpose of the camp strictly recreational, or is it focused on youth development?"
he says. "Will the camp teach my kids to fish, or might it also help them develop socially?"
Editors: Photos can be downloaded here.
Merrowvista campers and counselors enjoy the Four Fold Tournament, a 10-day tournament
where teams work together on wacky events like creating chariots of cardboard. Credit:
Merrowvista campers anxiously await a swimming relay race are Merrowvista's waterfront
on a spring-fed lake. Credit Rebekah Seaman.