Best, Two out of Three: The Use of Competition in Youth Camp Programming

Degree Name

MA in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management

First Advisor

John Ungerleider

Second Advisor

Charles Curry-Smithson


Competitive programming is a controversial topic among youth workers, evident among the varied opinions of the camp staff who work with The SeriousFun Children’s Network (SFCN), a global summer camp organization that serves children living with life-threatening illnesses. To better understand the divide in opinions, this paper explores the question: What are the attitudes and perceptions of SeriousFun camp staff towards competition in camp programming? , and also briefly explores the two sub-questions: Does competition affect perceived impact and camper behaviors/friendships?; and Do factors such as culture and ability affect the response to competitive vs. noncompetitive programming? Competition in a variety of forms (against oneself, against another individual/group, against a goal, and against time) is explored, in addition to themes such as, camper vs. counselor competition, camper-initiated competition, camp-facilitated competition, and the use of prizes/rewards.

Eight youth professionals, all staff of SFCN were interviewed; responses were transcribed in full, analyzed using grounded theory, and coded with the help of the qualitative analysis software, NVivo. Relevant literature was reviewed, and connected to emerging themes.

Ultimately, the effect of using competition in youth programming will largely depend on the definition of competition that is agreed upon within an organization and the intention of the program. This study provides an important starting point that can benefit a variety of youth organizations including, schools, peace building organizations, other camp settings, etc. The effect of gender and age on the inclusion or exclusion of competitive activities in youth programming should be further explored, as well as the inclusion of “competition training” in staff orientation. With capable and skilled adult leaders, youth of various abilities and cultures are well equipped to handle competition. Intentional competition, combined with noncompetitive activities, will provide youth with an impacting, realistic, and empowering program, destined to teach them lessons that they will be able to apply to all facets of life.


Interpersonal and Small Group Communication | Other Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social Psychology and Interaction

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