A new American Camp Association (ACA) study highlights the lasting impacts of camp and the ways that quality camp experiences support young people in developing valuable skills, learning who they are, and preparing for life beyond camp. The National Camp Impact Study, which looks at data gathered between 2017 and 2022, includes both youth and staff research and is the first longitudinal study of its kind.
“According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and families across our country have experienced enormous adversity and disruption since the pandemic,” said Tom Rosenberg, ACA president/CEO. “Camp plays a vital role in the educational development of the whole child, and that includes mental health. Additionally, working at camp provides professional development and life skills in such a profound, unique way, allowing young adults to enter the workforce with confidence – better equipping them to manage challenges.”
The study had three major components: one focused on youth, one focused on staff, and one focused on leadership development through counselor-in-training (CIT) programs and other staff recruitment strategies. An external research team from the University of Utah conducted the National Impact Study with guidance from an all-volunteer Research Advisory Committee and with the participation of 80 camps. While the full report goes into much greater detail, the findings of the study explore three main conclusions:
1. High-quality camp experiences promote youth and young adult outcomes.
Results suggest that high-quality camp experiences promote youth outcomes, with the most compelling evidence emerging in relation to affinity for nature, independence, and social awareness. These results appear to be primarily driven by the unique structure of camp experiences that combine engagement, belonging, and action-based experiential learning at camp. After camp, parents shared that their children had deeper friendships and a stronger sense of community.
2. Summer camp is a beneficial part of child and youth development and complements other life experiences.
Camp experiences support kids’ education and academic settings. Further analyses demonstrate improvements in engagement, belonging, supportive youth-adult relationships, and experiential learning.
Additionally, over the five years, 58 percent of youth reported that their time at summer camp helped them appreciate the importance of being present in the moment — specifically, taking time away from technology, developing in-person relationships, taking breaks, and reducing distractions. Why does this matter?
Considering young adult camp staff, findings indicate that working at camp provides unique opportunities compared to other settings, with potential benefits for skill and career development. The originality of camp experiences, along with the opportunity to have a positive effect on the lives of others, creates a meaningful work environment and shows that camp can be a viable stepping-stone in career development. Camp settings allow kids and young adults to experience their own impact on the world as they gain a greater sense of self trust and understanding of themselves.
3. It is critical to make camp experiences more accessible. Many parents and caregivers face significant barriers to sending kids to camp, highlighting the need for greater funding at the local, state, and national level.
Most parents want their kids to have fun, build social skills, and develop independence and other intrapersonal skills at camp. What’s more, as their children age, parents shift away from being the primary decision-maker. This shift often includes leveraging their children’s interests to drive decisions about summertime activities, including camp.
Many parents face barriers related to access to camp. The research clearly calls for the need to prioritize funding for new pathways to quality camp programming and experiences, making it possible for all families to both enjoy and explore the benefits of camp.
In conclusion, when youth are given the opportunity to attend or work at camp, they build key skills such as independence, social awareness, and perseverance. We now know that positive camp experiences drive outcomes that support learning throughout the school year. As we address our kids’ mental health, it is critical that every child and young adult gain access to and benefit from high-quality camp experiences.