I love the social sciences. I love that we humans try to understand ourselves, that we put the most obvious or mundane things under the microscope to try to parse out cause and effect, why and wherefore.
The research papers listed on the Web site of the American Camping Association, the trade group for summer camps, read like a parody of doctoral thesis gobbledygook:
"Effect of a Sports Camp Experience on the Multidimensional Self-Concepts of Boys." "A Study of the Influence of a Resident Outdoor Education Experience on Intermediate Level Children's Perceptions of Peers and Perceptions of the Out-of-Doors." "A Two-Week Resident Camp Offering the Primary Objective of Predetermined Attitude Change for Early Adolescents."
Attitude change for early adolescents? Where do I sign my kids up?!
But, seriously, all of this science is an attempt to understand what's really going on at a place like Camp Moss Hollow, the sylvan retreat for underprivileged kids that Washington Post readers graciously help fund.
We feel intuitively that sending any child away for a week in the woods is good for him or her. But does the science back this up?
The answer is yes, in subtle but measurable ways.
To find out what the effect is, researcher Paul E. Marsh conducted something called a meta-analysis. His team at Indiana University gleaned statistics from two dozen research papers devoted to studying the effects of summer camp on such areas as self-worth, self-esteem and confidence.
These are nebulous concepts that can't be quantified with the ease with which one counts red blood cells or measures the salinity of a water drop. But Paul found what he termed "enhancement" in such areas as personal growth, group skills and personal responsibility among children who attended camp. It occurs for all ages but is greater at the younger ages, from about 6 to 10 years old.
The effect was not huge, but, Paul said, "the fact that [summer camp] does have an impact that is measurable within a relatively short period of time -- from one to eight weeks -- that really is pretty significant and powerful."
The skeptic in me asks: Well, what else would you expect from a study conducted by the summer camping industry? But Hope Asterilla, who oversees Camp Moss Hollow, said she's seen firsthand the transforming power of camp. It's a setting, she said, that provides many small opportunities for success.
"A lot of these kids have not been recognized for anything that they have done well," Hope said. "When you have a child who swam across the pool for the first time or participated in a softball game as part of a team or did a nice arts-and-craft project -- when you have people saying, 'That's really great' -- man, that's a powerful impact that it has on the kids. That's long-lasting."
I asked Paul, who started going to a camp in Michigan when he was 8, what summer camp did for him. "I was an overweight kid who had long hair and didn't really fit in too well socially," he said. "I found out at camp that I was just accepted for being me. I think that's the most powerful thing."
Another person who has studied the effect of camping on kids is Gwynn Powell, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia's recreation and leisure studies department.
Summer camp, she said, helps kids learn and grow by taking them out of their comfort zones. Children are "able to look at the world differently because they're out of their own element."
For Gwynn, that came from being among campers and counselors from all over the world at the summer camp she attended in western North Carolina. Counselors from Gambia and Tanzania told of a world beyond her Carolina borders. A camper from England gave her a different take on the Revolutionary War.
One of Gwynn's most vivid memories is of the sort of serendipitous moment that camp is perfect for. She was about 10, and the campers were gathering outside the old wooden lodge for an evening program that included a campfire.
"One of the counselors noticed an incredible sunset coming," she remembered. "So the whole camp stopped what we were doing, went down the hill to where we could see the sunset over the mountains and sat in awe."
How to Help Make Memories
You can't put a price on such a memory. But you can put a price on sending a disadvantaged Washington area kid someplace where he or she can get one: $590, the cost for one child to attend Camp Moss Hollow for one week.
Our goal as of July 23: $750,000.
Our total as of yesterday: $156,736.51.
Here's how to contribute: Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to: Attention, Lockbox, Department 0500, Washington, D.C. 20073-0500.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in KIDS, or 5437, and follow the instructions.
Shrimp My Ride
Every Wednesday, the folks at area McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants and M&S Grills donate all proceeds from one menu item to Send a Kid to Camp. If you'd like to contribute to our bottom line and your waistline, order the popcorn shrimp appetizer today at McCormick & Schmick or the "Shrimp Scatter" appetizer with horseradish marmalade at M&S Grill.