Outdoor Cooking

By Anna Bilton

There is no activity at YMCA Camp Mason in Hardwick, N.J., that is more popular than outdoor cooking. It’s an elective activity in which campers plan, prepare, and cook over an open fire for an hour a day for a week. Each week during sign-ups, the activity leaders are bombarded by far more campers than can be accommodated in their activity. Age or gender doesn’t matter here. Food is a huge draw at camp, and campers cooking it themselves on a fire they helped to build set the scene for a powerful experience that builds confidence, encourages creativity and teamwork, and teaches all-important risk-management skills. Oh, and it’s great fun too!

Sounds great, right? Here is a traditional camp activity that modern-day campers relish. There are even wonderful growth opportunities for those who take part. But—just like all camp programming—outdoor cooking requires a clear direction and a strong focus so campers receive all the great benefits of this activity. When they are not engaged in every part of the preparation and cooking processes, there is the risk of the activity becoming nothing more than a buffet table next to a campfire.

The most important reasons that campers are pushed to the sidelines in outdoor cooking are well-intentioned and understandable concerns about safety. Working with campers and fire can be a scary prospect, especially when time is limited. So, how can you ensure that outdoor cooking at camp is safe and timely without sacrificing the fun factor and losing the huge development potential for campers?

Start To Finish
Here’s a checklist to ensure campers get the most out of this activity.

Two activity leaders should be present. This provides the supervision that campers need to participate safely.

Activity leaders and campers should create a set of safety rules together. Campers are more invested when they have a say. Giving them a say creates buy-in to the safety rules. They’re more likely to pay attention during the safety brief and more likely to follow the rules in practice. By involving campers in this process, you are also promoting an understanding of why this activity requires rules and why they need to be followed carefully.

Campers can help build the fire. This is the one that usually freaks camp directors out, but lose this and you lose camper engagement from the get-go. Set parameters, starting with campers of all ages collecting kindling or small sticks to help get the fire started. With close supervision, a couple of campers can be rotated at a time to help staff members feed the fire. Campers, being part of a team, will learn a new skill while developing a sense of responsibility for the cooking process. It’s also infinitely better than campers sitting around waiting for a counselor to build a fire. In staff training, members should be taught to build fires safely with camper involvement. There may be days whenthe menu dictates a fire needs to be ready before the activity begins (for example, the Dutch oven recipe), and that’s OK. The reasoning for this should be shared with the campers though.

Campers should plan the menu. This is a fun thing to do, and all too often staff members keep it to themselves. Something that works well is to give the campers a list of ingredients on the first day and ask them to come up with ideas for the rest of the week. Have marshmallows ready to roast to wrap up the planning session. Think about running an iron chef-style competition at the end of the week, or have participants compete against each other one on one. Guide the campers through the process as the group members make their decisions. Share tried-and-tested ideas and break out the camp recipe book if you have one. Allow campers to be creative, work together, and invest in the activity. Campers can prep the food. With guidance and instruction, campers can assemble their own s’more tacos or campfire pizza. It’s OK if their treats look horrendous, if James gets sauce all over his face, or if Sally forgets her chocolate chips. It’s all about the learning process and the fun being had along the way. If making a group dish like apple crisp, campers can take a turn at mixing the topping and placing pieces of apple in the container. It might take a few more minutes, but it’s totally worth it to involve everyone.

Campers do the cooking. Yep, that’s right. They should be putting their own tin foil dinner into the fire, helping to flip quesadillas, and stirring fondue. With help, close supervision, and support, campers of all ages can do or at least assist with these activities. Campers can even do these things individually if the group needs extra attention.

Campers eat up. Provide plenty of time for the group to sit down together and try the treats they have made. Have everyone share their thoughts on how they believe the project turned out.

Campers clean up. Just as they were a part of the preparation, campers should help staff clean up. The simple activities, like throwing the trash away and helping extinguish the fire, help create a culture of stewardship in the program.

Campers walk away from the Outdoor Cooking program having worked together and learned or refined a skill while still having a great time, and it’s all because the campers are involved at every step. When campers own the process, they reap the benefits!

Anna Bilton is the Summer Camp Program Director at YMCA Camp Mason in Hardwick, N.J. Reach her at anna@campmason.org.