Summer camps provide fun and exercise for children

When school’s not in session, it can be difficult to find ways to keep kids off of the couch. Summer camps, however, prove to be a much healthier alternative to TV. Not only do summer camps provide fun, engaging activities for kids, but kids at summer camps meet or exceed the amount of daily physical activity recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think a lot of kids get used to having their day structured from school. Summer camps provide a fun opportunity for children to stay active and keep on a regular schedule during the summer time,” said Ben Hickerson, assistant professor of recreation, park, and tourism management in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children participate in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and studies have shown that this is the equivalent of between 12,000 and 15,000 steps each day, measured by a pedometer.

Hickerson conducted research with Karla Henderson, professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University, in two types of summer camps: day camps, where children spend only the day doing activities (but spend the nights at home), and residential camps, where children sleep at the camps. He found that children in day camps take about 12,000 steps per day, on average. Children in residential camps were taking 19,500 steps per day, on average, which is well above the recommended guidelines.

Hickerson analyzed summer camps for children between the ages of 9 and 12, in an effort to find out not whether or not children in summer camps were getting enough physical activity, and also which aspects of summer camps were effective in promoting physical activity and which aspects could use improvement.

“In terms of physical activity, there are traditional disparities between demographics,” said Hickerson. “Males typically get more physical activity than females; Caucasians get more physical activity than African Americans and Hispanics. We found that, even though these disparities still existed in summer camps, they were decreased—and ultimately all children, regardless of their demographic, were getting the recommended amount of physical activity to help them stay healthy.”

Hickerson also found that other variables are associated with children’s physical activity in camps. Peer groups play a significant role in physical activity; children with active friends were more likely to be active, too. More physical activity spaces in a camp (pools, lakes, trails, etc.) proved to increase physical activity, and the distance between activity areas also played a large role—children can be physically active simply by walking to their planned activities. Finally, Hickerson found that camps must achieve a balance in their programming in order to optimize children’s levels of physical activity. If camps mandated too many physical activities in a given day, children could tire out and become less motivated.

Right now, Hickerson and Henderson are compiling their data into a series of journal articles, which can inform people who design or modify summer camps.

“I wanted to find activities or a better organizational structure that children can attach to and enjoy,” said Hickerson. “The more physical activity they participate in, the healthier they’ll be, both now and in the future.”

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Last Updated November 01, 2010