Double-Duty While Dining

By Justin Kurtz and Michael Bradley

Like so many other people involved in the camping industry, I got started in this type of work because I loved camping. As a camper, counselor, recreation director, song leader, maintenance worker, and full-time assistant director, I have always appreciated the bonds that form through the camp experience. For example, campers and staff grow together when they eat together. There is something about a shared community experience of breaking bread with a group of people that builds a distinct type of unity. As a result, meal times can be a great opportunity to continue all the fun that summer camp has to offer.

Gather As A Group
In addition to the camaraderie that is formed at meal time, there is the added benefit of “getting everyone on the same page.” For example, when I was assistant director, there were times during the day when it was necessary to gather as a group and make sure everyone was running on the same schedule. Meal times are a built-in opportunity to accomplish this. While my staff found it more effective to line campers up according to cabin prior to meal time, groups can be organized by age, gender, activity groups, or any number of other ways. These methods allow for a quick head count to make certain everyone is present and accounted for.

For camps with little space within the dining hall, lining campers up by cabins or groups also allows for an organized way to let them into the hall. To determine the order of entrance, trivia questions can be asked. For instance, questions about age-appropriate TV shows or movies work well. I worked at a Bible camp, so biblical trivia questions were offered.

Get A Game Plan
After the dinner bell rings, there may be a short waiting period before the kitchen crew is completely set to serve a meal. This downtime is actually a great chance to present a number of games that can be played in a short time.

A favorite of mine is finger wrestling (not to be confused with thumb wrestling). To play, two campers stand an arm’s length apart and grasp each other’s hands. Both campers use the same hand and grasp his or her opponent with their fingers wrapped around the thumb of the opponent so they point at each other. The object of the game is to touch the other person with that finger anywhere on the body, above his or her elbow, while avoiding being touched. The matches can really become intense, especially between adolescent boys who want to show their strength.

Fortunately, it is not always the strongest who wins, but the one who can use strategy to his or her advantage.

Sing A Silly SongPresenting activities during a meal may appear to be over-stimulating since campers are already involved in eating a meal, but camp is about providing continuous opportunities for growth. One activity I experienced as a camper during meal time was to be called on to sing a song. It was not uncommon to hear the entire dining hall break out in a chorus of “Sing a Song”:

“Sing a song, Justin. Justin, sing a song.
Sing a song, Justin. Justin, sing a song.
We won’t shut up till you stand up.
Sing a song, Justin. Justin, sing a song.”

For some campers this is an opportunity to muscle through the embarrassment as everyone gets a good laugh--including the singer, who usually offers as silly a song as he or she can imagine. However, this activity can be intimidating for some younger or less outgoing individuals, so it needs to be done with care. Often the targets of “Sing a Song” challenges would be limited to staff members.

Pass Out Mail
Another programming opportunity during meal time is to pass out camper mail, usually toward the end of a meal. Individuals are called forward and have to “earn” their mail by singing a song, reciting a quotation, or dancing a jig, either as an individual or with a group. We often helped those who were embarrassed or couldn’t think of something to do; after all, the point of camp is to build up an individual’s self-esteem.

Serve Up After-Dinner Spice
Another activity, called “After-Dinner Spice,” is simply a pre-approved special event or some type of entertainment provided by a staff member or camper who has a special talent to share. We also found that these opportunities reduced the number of acts and time required for the end-of-the-week talent show, which was frankly too long to keep everyone’s attention.

Deliver Daily News
Directly following meal times is also a way to make important announcements. Once campers have cleaned their plates and tables, there is a real opening for relaying the day’s news. Everyone is usually gathered in one place, which also helps to improve the attention span of the children. When I was an assistant director, the staff often used the time after lunch to reveal cabin clean-up scores. This rather boring announcement, when broadcast in just the right way, can build a sense of anticipation—and in turn competition between the cabins—that ultimately leads to cleaner cabins throughout the week.

A week of camp should be full and rich with opportunities to grow. While every summer camp is different and not all these ideas will work in every setting, using meal times to feed more than just the stomach is a great way to enhance the camp experience. Meal-time activities prove that even mundane tasks such as lunch or dinner can be a source of inspiration and growth for a young person.

Justin Kurtz is a graduate student in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University. Reach him at justin_kurtz4@mymail.eku.edu.

Michael Bradley, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University, contributed to this article.