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21st Century Skills And Teaching Children How To Take Assess Risk

 Talking about 21st century skills and the importance of teaching children how to assess risk

I hear it all the time: You work with middle school kids? That must be a nightmare! What a rough age. My response is usually something along the lines of “actually, I love working with this age group. Maybe it’s different at camp but mostly what we encounter are great kids who are really happy to be with their friends for the summer”. Based on almost twenty years of working with young people at our summer camp in NH that has certainly been my experience.

Our 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders mostly make good decisions. They spend 7-weeks (mostly) coexisting peacefully with their bunkmates and counselors. They live relatively stress-free lives that involve more time with their peers, and not less. And they do it entirely without mobile electronics, Facebook or the internet.


But that also wasn’t what I encountered during my time in middle school. Instead, I found those years to be fraught with emotional challenges and stressful relationships, often brought on by poor decision-making on my part. So why is there such a marked difference between the general middle school experience, and what takes place at K&E?

As I thought about this topic more I returned to a piece that ran in the Washington Post this past August. In it, Michelle Icard discussed some of the latest brain science and how it relates to adolescents:

Understanding why middle-schoolers are driven toward risk-taking is helpful, but knowing how to keep them safe is even better. While a middle-schooler’s brain can’t tell the difference between a good risk and a bad risk, the good news is that it’s equally satisfied by both. You’ve probably heard that kids who play sports are less likely to engage in negative risky behavior. That is not because they’re too busy to find time to misbehave…Instead, that’s because athletes are already taking risks on the field, so they’ve checked that box…anything else that takes a kid out of his comfort zone will fulfill that risk-taking drive.

The lesson here is that tween brains crave risk taking, and as adults it’s our responsibility to give them ample opportunities for the healthy kind. Conversely, when we don’t provide these adrenaline-producing moments they will still seek them out, but in other, much less socially appropriate ways. This is when that unpleasant pre-adolescent dynamic rears its ugly head.

So what is age appropriate healthy risk taking for 11-13 year-olds? As child development professionals here are a few that make the top of our list:

  • Team and individual sports
  • Adventurous activities like rock climbing, ropes courses, hiking, and mountain biking
  • Performing in front of people, either in theater, rock bands, dance groups, or show choirs
  • Social activities or events that are away from mom and dad, yet still appropriately supervised
  • Group and individual art projects, such as film making, photography, and makers workshops
  • Mentoring younger children. This can be at school, at a religious institution, or even in the form of babysitting


These healthy forms of risk taking will activate the emotional center of the brain, known as the amygdala, and give your middle schooler the mental stimulation he or she needs. It will likely also make them happier, and more emotionally balanced. The added benefit is that directing tweens towards these activities will help give them an understanding of which risks are healthy, and steer them clear of the ones that are not. This skill is crucial for when young adults suddenly find themselves with the independence that comes with a drivers license or a first semester at college.


Fortunately, there is one institution in American life that provides children and teens with opportunities to participate in every activity on this list: summer camp. Camp is loaded with positive, adrenaline-filled moments that enrich a tween’s life. Campers play on teams compete against other camps, participate in theatrical events, create movies that they write and direct themselves, climb mountains and rock walls, and socialize constantly with their peers. Young people at summer camp also have the opportunity to be visible role models and leaders to younger campers. All of this happens in an environment of mutual support and collaboration. By sending your child to overnight camp you will be giving him or her access to a laboratory in which they can learn how to better assess risk taking, and where the consequences for making mistakes are far less than in the outside world.

As our children approach physical maturity it is imperative that we provide them with the developmental tools to succeed outside of our homes. Nationwide, there is a proficiency gap amongst our young people, particularly involving non-cognitive or 21st century skills like independence, responsibility, self-directed learning, and healthy risk assessment. Overnight camp may be the best environment in which to help children gain these crucial life skills that they will need to succeed in the future.

Later this week, Scott, Deena and I will be attending a conference in Boston called Learning and the Brain. It aims to help connect educators with neuroscientists, researchers, and cutting edge information about how our brains work. I look forward to sharing with you what we learn in the coming days and weeks!

Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a 7-week brother-sister summer camp in Wilmot, NH. Through our innovative program we teach young people 21st century skills including critical thinking, risk assessment, and resilience. Through intentionally run activities of sports, arts, and outdoor adventure our campers have tremendous fun and make friendships that last a lifetime.  

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