Contextual Learning At Summer Camp

What is this all about anyways?

This research explores how contexts linked to residential outdoor experiences (ROE) contribute to significant learning. It addresses the need for the reconsideration and restoration of routine outdoor programs in Ontario schools and teacher training in this area. Contextual learning interconnects learner and teacher. ROE provides contexts on personal, socio-cultural and environmental levels.

Contextual learning breaks down classroom structures and encompasses cognitive, emotive, communal, tactile and spiritual domains. A residential summer camp serves as the setting for this study. Outdoor education is recognized as promoting the development of leadership, self-concept, cognitive function, interpersonal skills, motivation and self regulation. Residential, or overnight summer camp programs, have been shown to promote positive youth development and build strong links between youth and community. Residing in a natural setting for a period of time (Such as 1 or 2 weeks at camp) can make for a greater appreciation and understanding of the natural world and natural processes.

What you need to know!

Outdoor education builds a strong foundation of educational development in students. Residential camp programs are part of this outdoor education. The social and natural settings of these camps develop self regulation, motivation, interpersonal skills, cognitive function, self-concept and leadership skills.

What did the researcher do?

The research is both qualitative and quantitative. The approach is sequential and exploratory by design with three phases of data collection:

      1) Camp director as participant observer
      2) Personal interviews with alumni
      3) Survey of current campers.

The process follows the case study approach. Data is analyzed using mixed-methods. Participant observer’s primary proposition is that significant learning takes place particular to ROE and continues in future learning contexts.


Qualitative strategy Responses of alumni will support or refute participant observer and primary proposition.

Quantitative strategy
Responses of current campers support or refute alumni’s position.
Convergence of data serves to refute or validate the primary proposition.

Informed consent was obtained from 17 alumni, 113 campers (and their parents). Alumni reviewed their transcripts and were interviewed twice.

Phase 1

Interview guideline designed based on prior knowledge of the camp director. Alumni further informed and supported director’s knowledge in interview responses. This lends trustworthiness to the -director’s implementation of action and reflection through participant observation, further supported by personal journals, minutes, photographs, and writings that chronicled camp. Alumni responses lend credence to the knowledge claims of the director.

Phase 2

The responses of the alumni inform the survey design for current campers. Survey gauges opinion and/or attitude of current campers through 20 questions. Seventeen of the questions are 5 point Likert scales. The percentage frequency of individual positive or negative responses was noted. This identifies agreement or disagreement between present and past experience.

The question: are learning experiences at camp the same or different over a time span of 20 years? Findings support the primary position if responses to camper survey are in agreement with responses of alumni.

Phase 3

Phase 3: Allows surveyed responses of current campers to support or refute the primary proposition. In this way current camper data along with alumni data converge to support or refute knowledge claims of the camp director as participant observer. Convergence of present day data with retrospective data is significant as it identifies attitudes within the researched community as expressed over a spread of approximately 25 years.

What did the researchers find?

  • Learning was remembered with clarity.
  • Experiences were considered important and life shaping.
  • Participants developed intrinsic motivation which transferred to later life.
  • Specific skills proved valuable in later life.
  • Community promoted positive social networking skills and ethic.
  • Participants developed acceptance and respect for others.
  • Often assisted in resolving personal challenges.

How can you use this research?

  • Lobby government and school boards for inclusion of ROE in curriculum.
  • Promote ROE to further education for global citizenship.
  • Methodology can be used to determine effectiveness of a variety of missions.
  • Promote ROE for science field trips and nature based learning.
  • Contribution to literature on youth development.

About the Researcher

Dr. Stephen Fine is a director at Hollows Camp.
He can be reached at by emailing:
or calling (905) 775-2694


Fine, Stephen Michael. (2005). Contextual learning within the residential outdoor experience: A case study of a summer camp community in Ontario. Toronto: OISE/University of Toronto.

About this summary

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 This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License


*For a full copy of this research paper please contact Dr. Fine.
Should you wish to discuss future areas of camp research please do not hesitate to contact us*