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Welcome to Camp Weewatchu

Beneath the swimming, archery, and tie-dye, summer camp is something else: a perfect lab

(Bob Daly for The Boston Globe)
By Leon Neyfakh
June 26, 2011

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Faith wasn’t ready to be exclusive with Colyn. There were lots of boys at summer camp, and the seventh-grader wanted the chance to date some of them before the session ended. The thing was, Faith wasn’t so keen on the idea of Colyn going out with any other girls but her, and she protested when her friends told her she was being jealous and unreasonable. As she made her case, those of Faith’s fellow campers who were within earshot stared at her and shook their heads, muttering, “It’s not fair.” Nearby, a sociologist named Sandi Nenga sat with a notebook and wrote down every detail.

Nenga’s notes would eventually form the basis of an academic paper entitled “The Age of Love: Dating and the Developmental Discourse in a Middle School Summer Camp.” In the paper, the Southwestern University sociology professor describes infiltrating the children’s ranks and watching closely as they developed dating rituals and norms. “Simply keeping track of the beginning and ending of relationships constituted a significant portion of each day in the camp,” she found.

Nenga’s study might be a little jarring to those of us who remember going to summer camp as kids, and it’s not because we can’t vouch for her findings from personal experience. Rather, it’s because using summer camp as a place to study children has likely never occurred to most of us. But where we see boys and girls swimming in lakes and singing songs around the campfire, social scientists like Nenga see a research opportunity: an organized group of humans-in-training who have been made to grapple with one another in a strange new place. Where we see kids trying to

make friends and getting crushes on each other, they see a controlled environment in which the inhabitants feel very much free—but can be observed and studied the entire time.

Like hot-rod mechanics eyeing an exceptional motor vehicle, in other words, social scientists look at summer camp and see a truly remarkable lab.

And while it may seem funny to think “lab” as we drop our sons and daughters off in the woods and entrust them to a bunch of 20-year-olds in tie-dyed bandanas, the special blend of freedom and captivity that camp offers has made it a productive place for researchers to study how kids think, behave, and interact.

“It’s like Jane Goodall going out and watching the gorillas,” says Christopher Thurber, a child psychologist who has used summer camps to study homesickness.

Recent years have seen the publication of a substantial stack of papers based on data collected at summer camps. Researchers have used camp as a window into social rejection, teasing, children’s ability to remember their daily medications, the social standing of so-called mean girls, and the relative effectiveness of treatments for a variety of behavioral disorders. Some of these studies involved nothing more complicated than clipboards and surveys. Others have called for sticking electrodes on the heads of campers and analyzing their brain waves.

“If all goes well,” says child psychologist Daniel Waschbusch, “the kids think they’re just having a regular fun time at a summer camp.”

Of course, if there’s one basic feeling many of us have about the subject, it’s that summer camp is about the furthest thing imaginable from a “regular fun time”—that in fact, it’s a unique experience that stays with us well into adulthood. It’s unique for researchers too, giving them an uncommonly clear view into emotions and instincts that are harder to isolate and scrutinize in other contexts. Understand what happens at camp, in other words, and you’ve understood a lot.

To an extent, every researcher who sets up shop in a summer camp setting owes a debt to a small team of social psychologists from the University of Oklahoma, who in 1954 mounted what is arguably the most audacious camp experiment of all time.

It began the way summer camp often does, with a pair of buses pulling up to a 200-acre campsite called Robbers Cave and dropping off 22 prepubescent boys. The buses arrived separately, and by design, the boys in the first bus weren’t made aware of the boys in the second one and vice versa until about a week after the two groups moved into their cabins. In the meantime, the researchers in charge of the proceedings kept their subjects on opposite sides of the site, and just like real camp counselors might have done, led them in traditional get-to-know-you activities like swimming, having cookouts, and playing baseball.

By the time the researchers allowed the two groups to find out about each other, the ties that bound each of them together had grown strong. One group had taken to calling themselves the Eagles; the other, the Rattlers. Leaders had emerged in both, as had social hierarchies and traditions.

The researchers took notes as hostilities between the two tribes erupted. Insults like “stinkers,” “sissies,” and “bums” were hurled, and fights broke out. When members of one group walked by the other, they would put their fingers on their noses. At one point, the Eagles burned the Rattlers’ flag, an act which provoked the Rattlers to retaliate by raiding the Eagles’ cabin and stealing a pair of blue jeans from their leader.

The camp counselors, meanwhile, orchestrated a series of scenarios in which the two groups had to compete with each other, thereby fortifying the boys’ apparently instinctual feelings of us-versus-them. In the end, the researchers tricked the boys into uniting behind a common cause by forcing them to grapple with a make-believe water shortage. The grand finale, which may as well have been written for Hollywood, had the boys insisting on leaving camp in one bus. The paper that resulted from the study is now considered a classic of psychology.

By today’s standards, such an experiment would be considered decidedly unethical. But the appeal of camp as a venue for research lives on, in part because studying children is otherwise very difficult. Traditionally, scientists have done it by going into schools and observing their subjects in the classroom, or by bringing them in to a research facility and doing experiments on them there. Both of these methods come with problems: school bureaucracies, existing schedules, the artificiality of a lab, and the difficulty of getting kids to return over and over for follow-up visits.

At summer camp, many of these problems are automatically solved. Even if it’s just a day camp, the kids are gathered in one place every day and can be tracked for extended periods of time. And if it’s a sleep-away camp, so much the better: Instead of going home to different families every night, they file themselves into orderly racks of bunk beds.

“When you do a lab experiment everything in the lab is exactly identical. You try and make the conditions be as similar as possible, so that anything that you find that differs you can point and say, ‘it differs because of X,’” said Deborah Bialeschki, the director of research at the American Camp Association. At camp, she said, it’s easier to isolate variables: “Now you have the ability to go, ‘Well it’s not differing because they went home and were influenced by a parent, or another child, or they watched something on TV. It’s got to be something here.’”

According to the historian Leslie Paris, author of “Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp,” summer camp research can be traced back to the 1920s, when Hedley Dimock and Charles Hendry published “Camping and Character.” That book is credited with using research data to substantiate the idea that camp can shape character, a cause that is taken up today by Bialeschki and her colleagues at the American Camp Association. As a nonprofit advocacy group, the association tends to publish and promote findings that show the benefits of camp itself: that summer camp improves social skills and instills in kids a sense of adventure, self-esteem, and personal responsibility.

In the academic world, camp has attracted researchers who aren’t necessarily interested in camp itself, but use it as a setting anyway to ask broader questions about children in general. Waschbusch, for instance, helps run a day camp for kids with behavioral problems to study the effects of different therapies and medication. Erin Shoulberg, a graduate student at the University of Vermont, brought a research team to a girls’ camp to figure out what made certain girls popular, and established that the contributing factors to popularity are different at camp than they are in school. Benjamin Hickerson, an assistant professor at Penn State, used pedometers to track how much campers moved around in a typical day of hiking and swimming, and found that while his subjects’ gender and race were correlated with their level of physical activity, being at camp seemed to encourage much healthier habits in kids across the board. Nenga, the sociologist who studied matters of the heart, has also published a paper on the “underground economies” that form among kids as they manage resources like snacks and energy drinks.

“What I love about summer camp is that the kids really blossom, and you can see the very complicated social interactions that they have,” said Nenga.

The studies are usually designed to be unobtrusive. Many researchers believe that under no circumstances should the data-collection work being done make the campers feel like their experience of camp has been compromised or breached. This holds true even for those researchers who have started their own summer programs for the express purpose of using the kids who sign up as a sample.

Dante Cicchetti, a developmental psychopathologist, conceived of a day camp called Mt. Hope Family Center in 1985, when he was an assistant professor at Harvard. A camp seemed like the perfect way to conduct research on maltreated kids: It was nearly impossible to get them to show up for repeated visits at his lab, but with a camp he could have them brought from home every day by bus for several weeks of sports, crafts, and swimming—as well as significant research into their stress levels, emotions, brain activity, and social behavior.

“People were concerned that they might be upset, having those electrodes put on their heads and so on,” said Cicchetti, whose camp is now run out of the University of Rochester. “And actually the kids loved it!”

Ideally, Cicchetti says, the kids don’t make a distinction between time they spend doing normal camp stuff and the time they spent getting their heads scanned and their saliva tested for cortisol.

“What we did when they were done was we showed them their brain waves on the computer,” Cicchetti said. “We printed out paper with their brain waves and they could take their brain waves home.”

Parents who have just shipped their kids off to camp need not worry: There will be no brain-wave measurements without your approval. If you didn’t sign a permission slip explicitly allowing researchers to study your children, you can be sure that arts and crafts time will not be interrupted by clipboard-wielding grad students. Not only is that the ethics policy of the American Psychological Association and all legitimate research institutions, it’s also something a camp director is always going to demand when a researcher comes knocking on the door asking to do a study.

For now, the vision of camp that emerges from the existing research is that of a world set apart from civilization—not exactly uncivilized, à la “Lord of the Flies,” but a kind of alternate reality in which children learn how to exist in the world without the constant interference of grown-ups. That sense of isolation is precisely what makes camp work so well as a research setting. It also might be what accounts for the irrepressible affection that so many camp researchers seem to feel towards their laboratory of choice.

“The boy doing archery, the girl swimming—you can take a picture of any of these things and they’re the activities that kids know and love,” said Thurber. “But there’s a parallel invisible track that’s happening at every camp, and that is the increase in sense of adventure, the increase in social skills.”

Which is to say, the idea of doing studies at summer camp appeals to researchers for the same reasons that going there appeals to kids. The kids get to feel free, and act accordingly, while absorbing important lessons for the future. And if, at the end of three weeks, Cabin 6 generates a particularly sweet set of data, then the kids who lived there won’t be the only ones to walk away having learned something.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.