Active ingredients of learning at summer camp

  • 2 Accesses


“Active ingredients” are one way to describe the elements of a program that are responsible for the targeted change in behavior, skill, attitude, or belief (Li & Julian American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157–166, 2012). This term assumes a connection between program elements (ingredients) and participant outcomes, and assumes that a typical program includes inactive ingredients that are less directly tied to these outcomes. Delineating active and inactive ingredients will help program providers more effectively train staff and design programs to intentionally target desirable camper outcomes. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to identify the ingredients of the camp experience former campers believe most actively contributed to lasting learning. Specifically, we asked 524 former campers between the ages of 18 and 25 to identify the most valuable thing they learned at camp and then to tell us more about the aspects of the camp experience that most directly facilitated this learning. Consistent with the literature, it appears that former campers achieve primarily social-emotional outcomes at camp and that these outcomes are most useful after camp. When asked what at camp fostered these outcomes, participants identified a range of camp features from which we identified active ingredients and their relation to specific outcomes. These include: camp staff and the ways they support campers and serve as role models; camp programming that is novel, active, and provides opportunities to work with peers; a social context that is safe and supportive and fosters interaction among people from different backgrounds; and in overnight camp experiences, separation from home.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Akiva, T. (2009). The camp program quality assessment (camp PQA) development and pilot study. Ypsilanti, MI: David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. Retrieved from

  2. Allen, L. R., Cox, J., & Cooper, N. L. (2006). The impact of a summer day camp on the resiliency of disadvantaged youths. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 77(1), 17–23.

  3. American Camp Association. (2005). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Martinsville: American Camping Association, Inc..

  4. American Camp Association. (2013). Facts and trends. Retrieved from

  5. Asfeldt, M., & Hvenegaard, G. (2014). Perceived learning, critical elements and lasting impacts on university-based wilderness educational expeditions. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 14(2), 132–152.

  6. Berkel, C., Mauricio, A., Schoenfelder, E., & Sandler, I. (2011). Putting the pieces together: An integrated model of program implementation. Prevention Sciences, 12, 23–33.

  7. Bialeschki, M. D., Henderson, K. A., & James, P. A. (2007). Camp experiences and developmental outcomes for youth. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 16(4), 769–788.

  8. Browne, L. P., Gillard, A., & Garst, B. A. (2019). Camp as an institution of socialization: Past, present, and future. The Journal of Experimental Education, 42(1), 51–64.

  9. Callegaro, M., Baker, R. P., Bethlehem, J., Göritz, A. S., Krosnick, J. A., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2014). Online panel research: A data quality perspective. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

  10. Cooley, S. J., Burns, V. E., & Cumming, J. (2015). The role of outdoor adventure education in facilitating groupwork in higher education. Higher Education, 69(4), 567–582.

  11. Dewey, J. (1991). How we think. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1910).

  12. Dimock, H. S., & Hendry, C. E. (1929). Camping and character: A camp experiment in character education. New York: Association Press.

  13. Eccles, J. S., & Gootman, J. A. (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

  14. Ewert, A. W., & Sibthorp, J. (2014). Outdoor adventure education: Foundations, theory, and research. Human Kinetics.

  15. Fine, S., & Tuvshin, T. (2010). Cosmopolitan citizenship through the residential camp experience: Comparative research in North America and Central Asia. In Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, January 12 (Vol. 14).

  16. Garst, B., Browne, L., Bialeschki, D. (2011). Youth development and the camp experience. New Directions in Youth Development, 130, 73–87.

  17. Halsall, T., Kendellen, K., Bean, C. N., & Forneris, T. (2016). Facilitating positive youth development through residential camp: Exploring perceived characteristics of effective camp counsellors and strategies for youth engagement. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 34(4), 20–35.

  18. Henderson, K. A., Bialeschki, M. D., Scanlin, M. M., Thurber, C., Whitaker, L. S., & Marsh, P. E. (2007a). Components of camp experiences for positive youth development. Journal of Youth Development, 1(3), 1–12.

  19. Henderson, K. A., Whitaker, L. S., Bialeschki, M. D., Scanlin, M. M., & Thurber, C. (2007b). Summer camp experiences: Parental perceptions of youth development outcomes. Journal of Family Issues, 28(8), 987–1007.

  20. Johnson, S. K., Goldman, J. A., Garey, A. I., Britner, P. A., & Weaver, S. E. (2011). Emerging adults’ identity exploration: Illustrations from inside the “camp bubble”. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 258–295.

  21. Jones, M. I., Dunn, J. G. H., Holt, N. L., Sullivan, P. J., & Bloom, G. A. (2011). Exploring the ‘5Cs’ of positive youth development in sport. Journal of Sport Behavior, 34(3), 250–267.

  22. Kirk, R., & Day, A. (2011). Increasing college access for youth aging out of foster care: Evaluation of a summer camp program for foster youth transitioning from high school to college. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(7), 1173–1180.

  23. Larson, R., Rickman, A., Gibbons, C., & Walker, K. (2009). Practitioner expertise: Creating quality within the daily tumble of events in youth settings. New Directions in Youth Development, 121, 71–88.

  24. Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of “what works” across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157–166.

  25. Lynch, P. (2006). Camping in the curriculum: A history of outdoor education in New Zealand schools. Canterbury: PML Publications.

  26. Marsh, P. (1999). Does camp enhance self-esteem? Camping Magazine, 72(6), 36–40.

  27. Marshall, C. & Rossman, G. (2016). Designing qualitative research: Sixth Edition. Chapel Hill, NC: Sage Publications.

  28. Martin, P. (2010). Outdoor education and the national curriculum in Australia. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 14(3), 3–11.

  29. McKenzie, M. (2003). Beyond “the outward bound process”: Rethinking student learning. Journal of Experiential Educational, 26(1), 8–23.

  30. Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C. A., Ehrlich, S. B., & Heath, R. D. (2015). Foundations for young adult success: A developmental framework. Chicago: University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research.

  31. Paisley, K., Furman, N., Sibthorp, J., & Gookin, J. (2008). Student learning in outdoor education: A case study from the National Outdoor Leadership School. The Journal of Experimental Education, 30(3), 201–222.

  32. Paris, L. (2008). Children's nature: The rise of the American summer camp (Vol. 5). NYU press.

  33. Povilaitis, V., & Tamminen, K. A. (2018). Delivering positive youth development at a residential summer sport camp. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33(4), 470–495.

  34. Richmond, D., Sibthorp, J., & Wilson, C. (2019). Understanding the role of summer camps in the learning landscape: An exploratory sequential study.Journal of Youth Development.

  35. Sibthorp, J., & Jostad, J. (2014). The social system in outdoor adventure education programs: Present and future. The Journal of Experimental Education, 37(1), 60–74.

  36. Smith, C., McGovern, G., Larson, R., Hillaker, B., & Peck, S. (2016). Preparing youth to thrive: Promising practices for social emotional learning. Washington, D.C.: Forum for Youth Investment.

  37. Smith, C., Peck, S., Denault, A., Blazevski, J., & Akiva, T. (2010). Quality at the point of service: Profiles of practice in after school settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 358–369.

  38. Sorenson, J. (2018). The fundamental characteristics and unique outcomes of Christian summer camp experiences. Journal of Youth Development, 13(1–2), 183–200.

  39. Thomas, G. J. (2019). Effective teaching and learning strategies in outdoor education: Findings from two residential programmes based in Australia. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 19(3), 242–255.

  40. Thompson, M. (2016, July). Is there a camp movement in China? Camping Magazine. Retrieved from

  41. Thurber, C. A., Scanlin, M. M., Scheuler, L., & Henderson, K. A. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 241–254.

  42. Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387–392.

  43. Ullrich-French, S., & McDonough, M. H. (2013). Correlates of long-term participation in a physical activity-based positive youth development program for low-income youth: Sustained involvement and psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Adolescence, 36(2), 279–288.

  44. Ungar, M. (2013). The impact of youth-adult relationships on resilience. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 4(3), 328–336.

  45. Whittington, A., Garst, B. A., Gagnon, R. J., & Baughman, S. (2017). Living without boys: A retrospective analysis of the benefits and skills gained at all-female camps. The Journal of Experimental Education, 40(2), 97–113.

  46. Wilson, C., Akiva, T., Sibthorp, J., & Browne, L. P. (2019). Fostering distinct and transferable learning via summer camp. Children and Youth Services Review, 98, 269–277.

  47. Wilson, C. & Sibthorp, J. (2019). Summer camp as an advantageous setting for long-lasting youth development: A national study. 2019 American camp association research forum abstracts (pp. 78-80). Retrieved from

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Jim Sibthorp.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sibthorp, J., Wilson, C., Povilaitis, V. et al. Active ingredients of learning at summer camp. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education (2020) doi:10.1007/s42322-019-00050-6

Download citation


  • Out-of-school-time
  • Youth program quality
  • Outdoor education
  • Summer camp