More Than Just SeriousFun – A Yale Study on the Amazing Effect of Therapeutic Recreation Camps

When introducing the great work of Bátor Tábor I get compassionate although often somewhat confused looks. Some have a hard time grasping the concept of therapeutic camps.

“You mean it’s like a summer camp?” Well, technically it takes place when the weather is nice, yes. “Is it like an adventure camp?” They do a lot of activities that take kids outside of their comfort zones, sure.

I get it. Unless you’ve spent time on a cancer ward (be it as a patient or visitor) it’s not that easy to understand how that environment affects you. It can be a truly miserable place. This is not a reflection on the hospitals or the doctors rather the environment – it’s one where fear, hopelessness, pain and death are ever-present. It’s often debilitating. I shared some of my own experience about this in my book:

“After some treatments I could barely stand up and had to spend the night at the hospital. The sights and sounds of the cancer ward are depressing at best during the day, but they can be terrifying at night.

I had always made sure never to stay overnight. It’s an impossible place to rest. There is something about darkness that can be very disturbing, and night-time silenced the ward and turned it into an alien place. I couldn’t see my fellow cancer patients but I could sense and hear them loudly. Raw unfiltered human emotions, begging, pleading or praying. Bargaining for a bit more time, hoping that there’ll be another and perhaps better tomorrow.

Begging for more time with families and loved ones, praying that this is not yet the end.”

When you leave this, even for a little while or just return to the normal daily routine, it is liberating. It’s even better if you are able to visit a place that takes you outside of your comfort zone yet provides all the feeling of safety you need. A place where you are not reminded daily of your illness.

Over the many years of SeriousFun’s existence stories and anecdotal evidence suggested that attending camps has a positive impact on children but it has never really been documented. Fortunately (also for the more numbers oriented readers out there) in 2015 the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Centre published a report about the impact of SeriousFun camps (of which Bátor Tábor is a member).

If you want the short version and stop reading here: the impact of the camp is immense and can be life-changing.


Now, for the long version.

To set the scene:

  • For children living with serious illnesses developing friendships and strong social support can be challenging given long periods of absence from school due to being ill or receiving treatments
  • This can lead to loneliness and social isolation, which is linked with higher levels of depression and low self-esteem
  • Studies have found that good social support relates to reported resilience and positive coping abilities (e.g. with stress)
  • Children who have a strong network of support are better able to cope with illnesses
  • SeriousFun camps offer the opportunity for children to meet others with similar life experiences who can understand them, while the volunteers who look after them encourage social connectedness

Yale’s work began in 2010 and conducted a series of studies to examine the association between camp participation and camper outcomes. During the 2014/15 cohort a total of 850 parents/caregivers with campers participated in the study across five SeriousFun camps in the US, Italy and Hungary. The study examined, pre and post-camp, abilities such as making friends/connecting with others, coping and adaptation, capacity for resilience and so on. Of the 850, 645 completed pre-camp surveys, 481 one-month post-camp and 450 six-month post-camp, with 402 families completing all of the surveys.

Following the camp results of the study show that:

66% of parents reported that their child demonstrated an increased interest in social activities

79% reported increased confidence levels

77% reported increased self-esteem

64% reported a sense of belonging (similar results after both the 1m and 6m post-camp surveys)

Higher empathy and lower levels of sadness and anxiety.

Multi-level regression analyses were used to investigate statistical differences in a range of social and psychosocial outcomes, pre and post-camp (controlling for age, gender, prior attendance etc).

Campers experienced numerous positive outcomes, including:

Adaptability (e.g. ability to bounce back)

Positive attitude towards medication and medical personnel

Improved relationship skills

Results also show significant decreases in problems with psychosocial functioning (e.g. getting along with others) and passive coping strategies (e.g. ignoring or avoiding challenging situations or conflict)

The findings of this report are highly encouraging and clearly confirm the anecdotal and personal experience.

While it has some limitations: relatively small sample (although the response rate was high), lack of a control group, no follow-ups beyond the one and six-month points or lack of feedback from campers and volunteers; it is very helpful to understand and measure the impact of the camps around the world.

It would be great to have a much longer study or even documentary, perhaps something similar to the BBC’s Up Series.


More info:

Details of the report:

  • Title: More Than Just SeriousFun: The Impact of Camp on Resilience for Campers with Serious Illness. 2014-2015 report from Yale Child Study Centre
  • Published: August 2015
  • Link to report