A camp counselor’s grilling clinic teaches 21st century skills at camp

Being away from home and at summer camp for 7 weeks teaches you a lot of life skills. Simply by being away from your parent(s) you become more independent, more resilient, and more responsible for your own life. One of our long-time camp counselors recently wrote this essay about how he uses something as simple as a gas grill and a box of hamburger patties to bond with his 12-year-old campers, and help teach them some important 21st century skills.

Grilling Burgers to Teach 21ST Century Skills at Camp

At our summer camp for boys we have a cookout once a week. Most guys love to grill, so it becomes a great time for each age group to bond. The kitchen staff supplies us with food (hot dogs, hamburgers, vegetables, and sometimes even corn and steak) and the unit’s counselors grill. Unit grill nights are always a good time for unit bonding, silliness, and counselors showing off their grill skills.

Many years ago I asked some campers to help gather the grilling supplies from the kitchen. As we were heading from the dining hall one of the campers with me asked if he could grill. This camper and I had actually grilled hot dogs together on a previous overnight trip, so I knew that he could do this safely. I handed over the specula and let him start grilling. Under my watchful eye the camper did a wonderful job cooking for everybody that night, and the entire age group celebrated what he had done. He safely grilled over 60 burgers and had so much fun doing it. I could see that for him it was more than just an opportunity to stand behind a grill – it was a chance for him to feel a true sense of accomplishment, and step into becoming a more mature young man.

21st-century-skills-at-camp.jpgLook at me…I’m learning some life skills!

At our summer camp for boys, grilling is usually something the counselors do for the campers, but this time it was a camper demonstrating what he could do for the entire community. This was an “ah ha” moment for me, as I recognized it as a great opportunity for me to facilitate 21st century skills development in my campers.

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What are 21st century skills, and why is it important that we teach them at summer camp? They are the skills my campers will need in order to succeed in college and the workplace when they are older. They are also the skills that so many young people are lacking when they finally do start their first job or live away from home for the first time. 21st century skills are things like resilience or grit, or independence or the ability to compromise and negotiate with other people. From the corporate world to the playground basketball court, we all go through hundreds of moments each week where 21st century skills are crucial to our success. As a group leader at our summer camp for boys I know it’s my responsibility to find moments to help teach these skills to my campers, especially since they sadly aren’t emphasize directly in most classrooms.

RELATED: Developing 21st century skills leads to lots of tournament wins!

So how exactly do I teach these skills in the midst of a lesson on how to flip burgers? As I have learned over many years of working at Kenwood and Evergreen, it’s about how I structure this one-on-one time with my campers, and how I debrief with them afterwards. I usually start by grilling the first batch of hamburgers or hot dogs myself, but with a camper at my side. This gives me the opportunity to conduct a mini grilling orientation about how to do this without injury, and also how to know when food is ready and healthy to serve. After the mini grill orientation and being constantly under my supervision, the camper grills most of the burgers for the unit. I’m there to guide and coach, and to make sure that they see this task all of the way through.

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Grilling for large volumes of people always takes longer than they anticipate, and involves a lot more heat and sweat than they ever imagined. So we talk and joke around and I make sure that they always have a blast doing it. Adolescent boys love getting a newfound responsibility, especially when it’s something they see their dads and uncles (and moms and aunts) doing at home, and they are given the proper training on how to do it well. Grilling gives them a moment where they are doing something that truly benefits the community, and this helps build their confidence. I make sure that our counselors and campers celebrate the tremendous responsibility they have undertaken, and once everyone has been served, I discuss with them the leadership role they stepped into. We talk about what they learned, and what they will do differently next time. No matter what I find reasons to praise their efforts, and also give them constructive feedback. I also make sure to ask them if they have any follow up questions. This is all a part of how we teach 21st century skills at camp. 

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I cooked this myself, and everyone seems so impressed!

So often kids only see leadership as the loud person out front barking the orders. I want them to see that quality leaders can serve all sorts of functions, and that regardless of their sports or arts interests that they can learn to be effective leaders. All too often, they also give up if they don’t do something well the first time that they try it. It’s my job to help them understand that seeing a task all of the way is part of being a person of character. 

Summer camps can be great places for 21st century skills development during childhood. As a summer camp counselor, I’m seen over many of our 7-week seasons the unique and impactful ways that we can help facilitate this development in our campers. Of course, every summer camps’ main priority is creating safe, fun summer environments for all campers, but 21st century skills development opportunities are present every day, in moments big and small. One of my personal initiatives was during our afternoons of grilling.

RELATED: NPR talks about our summer camp as the place to gain 21st century skills

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