Outdoor Education R&E Center

Summer Camp
(Residential Camping)
Philosophy, Theory, Research, & Evaluation

James Neill
Last updated:
25 Oct 2006


What's new?

What is Residential Camping? (or "What are Summer Camps?)

Camps (usually meaning "American summer camps") are well-established forms of outdoor education.  Institutionally organized camping (or residential camping) is distinct from family camping or personal camping.  More about the definition of camps... (by Gwynn Powell)

There is a strong tradition in America of lower and upper school students spending between about 1 week to 10 weeks living in cabins a (relatively) remote setting, with other young people, under the guidance of camp counselors (usually young adults, sometimes past campers themselves). 

During the day, campers are involved a wide variety of activities, often including sports and games, indoor and outdoor activities, and often with a particular focus or theme, such as camps for Jewish children, camps for children with disabilities, camps for learning tracking skills, and so on.

Goals of residential camping often include:

  • having fun

  • experiencing living away from home

  • development of personal life skills and self-esteem

  • special goals, such as behavior management for at-risk youth, or environmental education

For a more detailed overview of camps, see ACA's Camp Trends Fact Sheet.

Residential Camping Research

There is a lot of parochial hype amongst camp staff and camp advocates that residential camping programs provide children and adolescents with "a world of good".  However, it is not uncommon for the general public, funding organizations, board members, parents, and other community stakeholders to be more critical, including asking whether there is formal proof that camps positively impact on campers' lives (Bialeschki, Henderson, & Ewing, 2003).


Camps with a self-development philosophy boost campers' self-esteem and self-concept (Marsh, 1999)


The most definitive study to date was a meta-analysis of the effects of camp programs on  campers' self-constructs, such as self-esteem and self-concept (Marsh (1999).  This study showed that whilst the overall effect of camps on these outcomes was small, that the outcomes were significantly moderated by the operating philosophy of the camp.  In other words, camps which had an operating philosophy which included personal development of campers, achieved moderately positive enhancements of self-esteem.  In contrast, camps which did not have a philosophy focusing on personal growth tended to have little or not effects on campers' self-esteem.  Thus, camps with a self-development philosophy tend to have similar effects to outdoor education programs on self-esteem and self-concept.  To learn more about this meta-analysis of camps, read an ACA newsletter article by Marsh.


American Camping Association's National Camp Research & Evaluation Project (2001-2003)


Currently, we are awaiting the findings from a new, major three-year study of the effects of camps on youth development outcomes.  The study has been initiated by the American Camping Association and funded by the Lily Foundation (a pharmaceutical company) to the tune of US$640,000.  You can read the initial press release (2001); however, to date no updates about progress or findings have been made public.


Other research projects of note

  • National Camp [Disability] Evaluation Project. The three year study focused on evaluating the effectiveness of summer residential camping experiences for children, youth and young adults with disabilities (ages primarily 7-21).
  • The National Inclusive Camp Practices (NICP) Study-1997-2000. National Inclusive Camp Practices (NICP) study of youth with and without disabilities in resident mainstream (i.e., inclusionary) camp and outdoor school programs. Conducted from 1997-2000, the NICP study results were reported at the 2001 Coalition for the Outdoors Bradford Woods Research symposium.  The study focused on 16 ACA accredited resident camps and outdoor school sites nationwide, and include parents, administrators, counselors/staff, and approximately 1,000 youth (50% with and 50 % without disabilities), ages 7-18.
  • Randall Grayson (1999/2000) conducted research on a summer camp's ability to positively impact characteristics of resiliency (future sense of self, social skills, positive peer influence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and more) in at-risk children (poverty, single parent, drugs, etc.).
  • Gwynn Powell has been doing a PhD on camping, including a focus on the definition, history and formulation of camping and examining empirical evidence supporting the major components of the definition. For more information, see this Find Articles search of Powell's articles in the ACA Camping Magazine.
  • Randall Grayson (2000) has been working on conducting a comprehensive literature review of camping research in the 20th century.
  • New York state has been doing research on the processes and outcomes of two-week camp experiences which have a large educational component over the past 3 years.

Camping research information links

Google search for camp+camping philosophy, theory, research & evaluation



Bialeschki, M. D., Henderson, K., & Ewing, D. (2003). The voice of the campers: Research findings through qualitative data collection. Camp Research Symposium, American Camping Association National Conference, Denver, CO.


Marsh, P. E. (1999). Meta-analysis on the effects of camps on self-esteem and self-concept. Masters thesis, University of Indiana, IN.


Shasby, G., Heuchert, C., & Gansneder, B. (1984). The effects of a structured camp experience on locus of control and self-concept of special populations. Therapeutic Recreation, 18, 32-40.