December 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB1

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Looking Back, the Impact of the 4-H Camp Counselor Experience on Youth Development: A Survey of Counselor Alumni

The study reported here looked at the long-term impact of being a counselor at a 4-H residential camp. Alumni counselors were asked about their experience and how it related to personal development, the development of skill for working with children and groups, and life skill development. Results showed that being a 4-H camp counselor had significant impact on the participants, particularly in leadership, citizenship, sense of contribution and teamwork. In addition, analysis revealed differences in perceived skill development between younger and older alumni. Overall, the study presents one of the first looks at the lasting impact of 4-H camp counselor programs.

Jeanne Brandt
Extension Family and Community Development Faculty
Oregon State University
Beaverton, Oregon

Mary E. Arnold
4-H Youth Development Specialist
Corvallis, Oregon

Oregon State University


Understanding the long-term impact of 4-H programs on youth is a perennial issue. We know that much of the work of positive youth development plants the seeds for the future success of the youth with whom we work. We are often left, however, wondering how we can capture the impact of 4-H as youth move into their 20s, 30s, and beyond. All of us have heard stories about the benefit of 4-H from former 4-H members who are now actively involved in their adult lives. But we rarely have taken the time to study some of those long-term effects in a systematic way.

The purpose of the study reported here was to examine the long-term impact of participation as a 4-H residential camp counselor. To date, no research about the long-term impacts of participating in an organized camp counselor program has been published.

Every summer, thousands of young people across the country participate in 4-H summer residential camping programs intended to introduce appreciation of natural resources and to promote life skills development. These campers are often supervised by trained, high-school aged counselors (Roark, 2000; Thomas, 1996). There is considerable recent evidence about the impact of residential camp on life and other skills gained by both campers and counselors (American Camping Association, 2005; Arnold, Bourdeau, & Nagele, 2005; Forsythe, Matysik, & Nelson, 2004; Garst & Bruce, 2003; Hines & Riley, 2005; Hoell, 2003; LaFave & Buck, 2001; Nagele, Bourdeau, & Arnold, 2005; Meier & Mitchell, 1993). None of these studies, however, measured the lasting impact of participating in camp, particularly on camp counselors.

Teen 4-H camp counselors play out their role in that interesting place between childhood and adulthood. No longer are they the little ones looking up to their counselor. Instead, as camp counselors, they take on a pseudo-adult role and experience many of the rights and responsibilities of being an adult. Developmental psychologist James Marcia (1987) emphasized the importance of youth "trying on" different roles rather than foreclosing too soon on an identity or career path. Doing so helps encourage the development of broad skills and interests that can be applied in a variety of settings in adult life. It makes sense, then, that the camp counselor experience could have a major impact on teens as they try on, practice, and develop important adult roles.

In the summer of 2004, Oregon conducted a study to assess the lasting effect of the experience on those who participated as counselors at summer 4-H residential camps. The goal of the study was to explore how the counselor alumni felt about the impact of the experience as they enter their adult lives.


Participants and Procedures

Participants for this study were 205 camp counselor alumni from 10 Oregon counties who had participated as a camp counselor in one or more of five residential 4-H camps offered in Oregon during the past 20 years. Questionnaires were sent via mail, with follow-up reminder post cards sent 2 weeks later to increase response rate (Dillman, 1999). Surveys were returned by 83 people, for a 40% return rate. The age range of the study participants was 19 to 39 years, with a mean age of 24. Twenty-one participants were male (25%), and 62 were female (75%). This ratio is consistent with the typical gender distribution of camp counselors and older teens in the 4-H program as a whole.


A questionnaire was developed specifically for the study. In addition to basic demographic information, the questionnaire focused on three areas of impact: 1) personal experience as a camp counselor; 2) the development of skills for working effectively with children and groups; and 3) the development of selected life skills as outlined by Hendricks (1996). There were five items related to personal experience, nine related to the development of skills for working with children, and 15 life skill items. Participants were asked to rate each item on a one to five scale.

Questionnaire items, including the selection of specific life skills from the Targeting Life Skills Model (Hendricks, 1996), were developed by a team of 4-H professionals with expertise in camp counselor training. The items were then shared with other experts in the field to determine the final selection of questionnaire items.

This process led to confidence in the content validity of the items, meaning that the experts felt that the selected items sufficiently represented the personal experiences typically encountered as a camp counselor and the domain of skills needed to work effectively with children and groups (Carmines & Zeller, 1991). Internal reliability for each of the three areas of impact was assessed using Cronbach's Alpha (Cronbach, 1971). Reliability coefficients for the three areas were: .71 (personal experience), .91 (skills for working effectively with children and groups), and .96 (life skills).


To measure the impact of being a camp counselor on personal experience, respondents were asked to rate each item on a one to five scale, with a one indicating "not true at all" and a five indicating "extremely true."

Participant ratings ranged from a high of 4.13 (being a camp counselor helped me develop self-confidence) to a low of 2.62 (considering a career with children as a result of being a camp counselor). Table 1 lists the range and mean scores for each personal development item.

Table 1.
Ratings of the Impact of Being a Counselor on Personal Development

  N Min. Max. Mean SD
Being a 4-H camp counselor helped me develop self-confidence 84 1 5 4.13 1.00
Being a 4-H camp counselor was one of the most important things I did in 4-H 84 1 5 4.12 0.95
I have used the skills I learned as a camp counselor in other settings 84 1 5 4.10 0.96
My camp counselor experience has opened career or other employment opportunities for me 84 1 5 3.01 1.24
Because I was a 4-H camp counselor, I am considering a career in working with children 82 1 5 2.62 1.48

A second set of questions asked participants to rate how much being a 4-H camp counselor helped the person to develop skills related to working with young children. Participants were asked to rate on a one to five scale how much being a camp counselor helped them to develop each skill item. A score of one indicated that being a camp counselor did not help develop that skill "at all." A score of five indicated that it "really helped." Mean ratings ranged from a low of 3.37 (developed knowledge of child development) to 4.46 (being a role model for others). Table 2 presents the range and mean scores for each item.

Table 2.
Ratings of Skill Development Related to Working with Children

  N Min. Max. Mean SD
How to be a role model for others 83 3 5 4.46 0.67
How to lead groups 83 2 5 4.41 0.80
How to encourage and support others 83 3 5 4.36 0.69
How to facilitate groups of children 83 3 5 4.31 0.71
How to teach others 82 2 5 4.16 0.88
How to deal with difficult children 83 1 5 4.08 0.90
How to plan an educational activity 83 1 5 3.94 0.90
How to handle emergency situations 83 2 5 3.75 0.90
Knowledge of child development 83 1 5 3.37 0.98

The third set of questionnaire items were drawn from the Targeting Life Skills Model (Hendricks, 1996). Items from the model have been used to define the types of skills typically promoted through participation in the 4-H program. The model emphasizes the balanced development of particular life skills centered in each of the 4 "H's": Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. Figure 1 shows how the life skills developed through participation as a camp counselor reflects this balance.

Figure 1.
Life Skills Developed Through Participation as a 4-H Camp Counselor

Selected Life Skills from the Targeting Life Skills Model (Hendricks, 1996)





Problem solving




Decision making


Resolving conflicts

Good character

Goal setting

Group contribution

Empathy for others

Managing feelings



Nurturing relationships


Participants were asked to rate on a one to five scale how much being a camp counselor helped them to develop each life skill item. A score of one indicated that being a camp counselor did not help develop that skill "at all." A score of five indicated that the it "really helped." Table 3 presents the range and mean scores for each item.

Table 3.
Ratings of Life Skills Developed through Participation as a 4-H Camp Counselor

  N Min. Max. Mean SD
Leadership 83 2 5 4.49 0.70
Teamwork 83 3 5 4.40 0.75
Contribution to a group effort 83 2 5 4.40 0.80
Responsible citizenship 83 2 5 4.12 0.93
Problem solving 83 1 5 4.11 0.92
Conflict resolution skills 83 2 5 4.10 0.86
Decision making 83 2 5 4.08 0.91
Communicating with others 83 2 5 4.07 0.87
Character 83 1 5 4.02 0.96
Nurturing relationships 83 2 5 3.96 0.86
Self-Esteem 83 1 5 3.95 0.99
Empathy for others 83 1 5 3.83 0.89
Managing feelings 83 1 5 3.69 1.04
Self-discipline 83 1 5 3.67 1.03
Goal setting 83 1 5 3.66 1.02

Because one of the goals of the study was to investigate the long-term impact of participation as a 4-H camp counselor on skills for working with children and groups, and life skill development, further analysis was conducted to examine potential differences in impact over time. To do this, respondents were placed into two groups based on age. The first group contained those age 18 to 23 (roughly college-aged; n = 45). The second group contained the respondents who were 24 or older (post-college and presumably more settled into adult life; n = 39).

An analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted between groups to identify between-group differences in mean ratings of skills for working with children and groups and life skill development. Eleven significant differences were found, and in all cases the ratings of the 24 and older group were higher. Table 4 presents results of the ANOVA of skills for working with children, and Table 5 presents the results for life skill development.

Table 4.
ANOVA of Skills for Working with Children by Age

  Mean Ratings df F
Age 18-23 Age 24 & Over
Learned how to be a role model for others 4.36 4.56 1 1.881
Learned how to lead groups 4.25 4.59 1 3.890 **
Learned how to encourage and support others 4.20 4.54 1 5.067 **
Learned how to deal with difficult children 4.14 4.03 1 .310
Learned how to facilitate groups of children 4.11 4.54 1 7.928
Learned how to teach others 3.95 4.38 1 5.142 **
Learned how to plan an educational activity 3.82 4.08 1 1.717
Learned handle emergency situations 3.59 3.92 1 2.914
Learned knowledge of child development 3.27 3.49 1 .981
** p < .05

Table 5.
ANOVA of Life Skill Development by Age

  Mean Ratings df F
Age 18-23 Age 24 & Over
Leadership skills 4.36 4.64 1 3.291
Teamwork skills 4.23 4.59 1 5.097 **
Skill in contributing to a group effort 4.18 4.64 1 7.431 **
Conflict resolution skills 4.11 4.08 1 .037
Responsible citizenship skill 4.02 4.23 1 1.037
Decision-making skills 4.00 4.18 1 .796
Communicating with others 3.95 4.21 1 1.745
Problem solving skill 3.93 4.31 1 3.526
Character 3.82 4.26 1 4.468 **
Skill in nurturing relationships 3.70 4.26 1 9.342 **
Self-esteem 3.68 4.26 1 7.576 **
Empathy for others 3.61 4.08 1 5.873 **
Goal setting skills 3.55 3.79 1 1.251
Self discipline 3.52 3.85 1 2.084
Skill in managing feelings 3.50 3.90 1 3.127
** p < .05

Conclusions and Implications

Based on the responses received in this study, involvement in a camp counselor program does indeed appear to have a long-term, positive impact on the lives of participants. With regards to personal development, alumni self-reported that being a camp counselor contributed more to the development of self-confidence and transferable skills.

Ratings of the impact of being a counselor on a career with children were lower, leading us to conclude that being a counselor may not have a strong impact on career choice, at least in terms of a career working with children. What the experience does appear to do, however, is provide a setting for exploring opportunities, trying on new roles, and learning skills that are useful in other settings. This is consistent with Marcia's (1987) factors that lead to healthy identity development.

A camp counselor experience involves working with children and groups in a variety of settings and situations. When asked about related skills, the ability to lead groups, how to be a role model for others, and how to encourage and support others received the highest ratings.

Noticeably lower ratings were given in the areas of knowledge of child development and how to handle emergency situations. Because we know that child development and emergency situation information is provided at the pre-service training given to all counselors, it could be that these two items were simply less prevalent in the experience of camp counselors. For example, emergency situations occur far less frequently than other daily camp activities, and counselors may not be aware of how they are using their knowledge of child development information in their camp activities. Additionally, because this is a retrospective look, it could be that these are not areas that had a significant impact on the counselor's memory of the experience. Nonetheless, given the importance of these items, the results also call for re-evaluating the pre-service trainings to be sure counselors have sufficient knowledge and readiness in both of these areas.

The highest ratings for life skill development were for the four skills that fall under the "hands" section of the Targeting Life Skills model: leadership, responsible citizenship, contribution, and teamwork. Given the "hands-on" nature of being a camp counselor and the need for counselors to be leaders, demonstrate responsibility, contribute and be a team, this is not surprising. What this is confirming is the fact that the counselors who participated in this study continue to see these skills as the primary things they learned long after camp ended. Other skills that alumni rated highly were communicating, resolving conflict, and problem solving. Again, given the context of the counselor's role at camp, the higher rating of these skills makes sense.

The results of the ANOVA between the college age and older groups also revealed some interesting findings. For the items related to working with children and groups, significant differences were found for learning how to teach others, how to teach groups, and encouraging and supporting others. For the life skill items, significant differences were found for developing empathy, nurturing relationships, contributing to a group effort, teamwork, self-esteem, and character development. While much more research needs to be done on the nature of these differences before any conclusion can be drawn, one possible reason could be that the older group has now entered a stage of life (career, marriage, family) where these skills are increasingly necessary and therefore seen as more valuable.

Finally, comments written by the respondents frequently alluded to the bonding and friendships developed among the camp counselor group as being a source of great satisfaction. They understood the significance of their role and had knowledge of the impact they were making on the youth in their care. It appears that being a 4-H camp counselor is a rewarding and meaningful experience that has a lasting, important impact.


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