Summer Camp: A Unique Environment for Social and Emotional Learning

In fall 2015, Challenge Success launched a research-practice partnership with three northern California camps. These camps believed deeply — like many of you — that summer camp provides kids with long-term benefits and essential learning experiences, but they wanted to better understand if and how this was true.   

As an education research organization affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, we thought it was an exciting opportunity to investigate camp as a unique learning environment. Our goals were two-fold:  1) to provide each camp with their own data for use in reflecting on and improving their programs (evaluation), and 2) to analyze data from the project and share our findings with the broader camp community (research). 

Our work started, as much research and evaluation does, by working with our camp partners to develop a logic model that clearly identified the intended outcomes, or benefits, they believed kids receive by coming to camp. For our partner camps, these included better communication and collaboration skills, empathy and perspective taking, initiative and perseverance, and improved relationship-building skills, among others. In the logic model, we labeled these skills “short-term outcomes” of camp, and we explored how and if they were ultimately connected to the skills and competencies kids need in the long term for academic, career, and relationship success.

It was immediately clear to us that the outcomes identified by our camps were closely aligned with the current education research on social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective learning environments.  

For example, we know from existing research that social and emotional skills are critical to young people’s academic success (Farrington et al., 2012), and that children must have the opportunity to practice and develop SEL skills such as empathy, perseverance, and collaboration, in order to thrive in careers, in family, and in community as adults (CASEL, 2015; Farrington et al., 2012; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). We also know that out-of-school settings offer an important space for kids to develop these competencies (Devaney, 2015; Durlak, Weissburg, & Pachan, 2010).  In particular, summer camp — an immersive and highly social experience — offers great potential to foster the development of such SEL skills.  

Research also tells us that effective learning environments are ones where kids have a sense of physical and emotional well-being, a strong sense of belonging, and are engaged — affectively (interest, fun, enthusiasm), behaviorally (active participation), and cognitively (reflecting, making choices, having opportunities to give input) (Conner & Pope, 2013; Osterman, 2000).

Our study draws from this existing research and was designed to examine the ways in which camp is a learning environment that provides kids with opportunities to practice and develop SEL skills.

Over the last two summers we collected nearly 10,000 surveys  (camper, counselor, and parent) and observations at six different day and resident camps — including the three original camps and three additional camps that joined the study last summer. We are currently sharing our findings with each of our partner camps and are already seeing them make many small “tweaks” in response. In fact, our camps are planning changes to programs, activities, and staff training to intentionally enhance camper learning opportunities. All exciting early benefits from our work!  

Our next step is to analyze the data we’ve collected across all six camps and share what we’ve learned with the broader camp community.  While we know that not every camp can engage in a large evaluation process, we hope that our findings will be useful to others and inspire reflection about how camps can excel as high quality learning environments where kids can practice many of the essential skills they need for school, job, and relationship success.  Stay tuned!

This piece was originally posted in the American Camp Association blog.

Lisa Westrich serves as the Director of Programs at Challenge Success, and Dr. Denise Pope is a Challenge Success Co-Founder and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.