Research in practice

Can residential camps improve outcomes for young people with long-term health conditions or disabilities?

Exploring the impact of using a specialised camp programme for young people who have long-term health conditions or disabilities, and whether they can promote positive psychosocial improvement.

Exploring the impact of using a specialised camp programme for young people who have long-term health conditions or disabilities, and whether they can promote positive psychosocial improvement.

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One fifth of the UK’s population are young people, of which one in seven have a diagnosed long-term health condition or disability (Milnes 2016). There are organisations who arrange residential camps aiming to provide recreational and residential activities for young people. These camps provide a supportive environment for learning to self-manage health conditions independently, something that is important for the transition to adult life (American Diabetes Association 2015). 

While a student at Leeds University, I undertook a literature review as my dissertation. The aim was to explore if attending a specialised camp programme leads to a positive improvement in psychosocial outcomes for children and young people with a long-term illness or disability.


The search was limited to English language studies published in the past five years. Search terms used included children and young people, camp, illness and psychosocial variables. Several relevant journal archives and reference lists were also searched to minimise the risk of not including relevant studies. However, this yielded no further articles when matched against the inclusion and exclusion criteria. In total, five studies were included in the review. The mixed methods appraisal tool (Pluye 2013) was selected for critical evaluation of the studies.


 The studies included used a variety of standardised outcome measures, exploring psychosocial variables including quality of life, perception of illness and the effect of peer relationships. The paediatric camp outcome measure – a questionnaire to assess the impact of the camp experience – was used by two studies which includes an overall total well-being score as well as four sub-scale scores which cover: social and emotional functioning, physical activity, and self-esteem. Results identified increased well-being across the psychosocial variables measured across all included studies.

Where studies included qualitative data collection, the positive social aspects of camp are captured powerfully in verbatim transcribed responses. Themes also identified how the strong community presence among the campers encourages peer support. It could be said that residential camps may be one of the most appropriate settings for this kind of social interaction to occur. As such, the camp experience was deemed to have a positive impact on the immediate psychosocial well-being of children and young people with illness or disability.


 A limitation, as acknowledged by Dawson et al (2012), in terms of the quantitative data was that, although demographic information for individual participants were collected, post-camp outcomes could not be determined on demographic bases. The qualitative data were enlightening, but the sample sizes and demographics of the campers make the findings of limited transferability.


There are several reported positive impacts that attendance at camp has for children and young people with long-term conditions. However, more research is needed to investigate whether the benefits from camp attendance are sustainable and whether they have positive psychosocial outcomes long term. It would also be useful to investigate camp attendance as a therapeutic intervention. Furthermore, contemporary UK studies are needed to make direct observations about the benefits for children and young people, as all included studies in the review were conducted overseas, possibly because of the prevalence and availability of these types of camp programmes.


Undertaking the review was challenging due to my limited previous experience. Guidance documents were used to assist the search strategy and evaluation processes along with support from my academic supervisor. As a result, the search process was extensive, ensuring the retrieval of appropriate papers for review and identifying that exploring the benefits of residential experiences for children and young people with long-term illness or disability is an area of study that is needed.


Emma Wilson is now a staff nurse at Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk. The article is written on behalf of the RCN’s Research in Child Health community.

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