Supervising Free Choice Time
At camp we talk a lot about independence, being able to be the person you want to be, and learning about yourself, and at the same time, as camp directors, a lot of us have a hard time letting go or not being in control. One way we try to solve for that is with free choice times at camp. These look like free time after dinner, carnivals, choose your own adventure games, you name it. What they have in common are times during a camp session where kids get to choose how they spend their time and wander between different areas.
Supervising Play Times
The times mostly look like there are some activities going on and kids bouncing between them. The activities can be adult lead, like high ropes, or just stuff kids pick up and do, like carpetball.
For the activities that campers opt into but then are lead by camp staff, the training for standard activities applies. Lead a great activity, engage with kids, set clear rules, make sure you are fun to listen to etc.
For activities like carpetball, sometimes the supervision is a little more complicated. If the kids are sorta leading their own fun, what even are the responsibilities of the staff in this space? We made a brief video about supervision and mention this sorta free time supervision as zone defense.
I want to dig into this a little more.
First, as the person scheduling staff in these areas make sure they know their role, I like to assign staff to specific areas. Dakwan is in the lower area of the barn, Alice is in the makerspace, etc. Then I like to have a rover or two, at Stomping Ground we call them the bookies. These people are in charge of both making sure all the spaces are engaging, but also carrying a clipboard with who is supposed to be in each area. Sorta like the waterfront director would be the bookie at waterfront both doing buddy ups but also checking on the lifeguards.
So if I am scheduling a free time, I assign my 10 staff to different areas and then assign a booky or two to wander around checking on campers and staff to make sure things are going well. I find assigning staff to specific areas reduces clumping (when staff don’t have clear expectations and hang out together instead of with kids) and assigning a booky helps create a safety net.
Basically - there are always people at activities and people are wandering around, so kids are supervised 100% of the time. Based on what your camp needs and what your layout looks like, you may think about an hourly meetup to count, a tag in system, or multiple smaller free zones.
Supervising Your Zone
Ok so now what do the staff in their zones do? Mostly the same thing they do everywhere else. It isn’t that complicated, and if we aren’t clear I think it can be easy to sit off to the side. Being clear here is super important. Something like:
Your role is to:
First keep kids safe, physically and emotionally
Second to engage and build connections
Often, engaging makes it easier to keep kids safe but not always. Think about the extreme version of this while kids are swimming. A lifeguard's job is really just number 1. They keep kids safe and stay vigilant, but are not creating connections.
WHAT does this look like?
We do SCANS.
Building the sandbox and being clear about what is allowed in the space makes supervising a choiceful area much easier. This is about setting expectations and starting from a place of safety.
Set clear boundaries for the physical space but also the rules. At gaga illuminate the hidden curriculum for the rules. Kids can wander over to gaga, and then who sets the rules? I don’t think there is a right answer, but be clear if the rules for gaga are flexible or stay the same. In general, the more space we give for kids to make up how they interact with the space the more creativity they can have, but also the higher the chance of conflict.
After creating a sandbox, you may be able to move to a place you can connect. Let’s say you are supervising a space with picnic tables, hammocks, and board games. You can absolutely play a game of Catan with 3 or 4 kids or maybe sit with 2 or 3 kids talking about Magic. This is a great time to connect with kids, engage, and make free time even more special.
Connection can also look like noticing one camper sitting by themself and just sitting with them and checking in.
Building choice starts with consent. Consent in these spaces is about asking more than telling. After we build the sandbox, it is up to each camper in the space to decide how to interact. This means asking more questions than giving answers.
In our example above with the camper sitting by themself, one option is to tell them to go join gaga. You mean well and you believe they would have a better time if you told them what to do, but what if we flipped that. What if, instead, you sat down next to them and asked how they were doing or hit them with a random would you rather? In these choice times, there are plenty of moments where you will tell kids to stop or use a directive instead of asking a question, but those times tend to be about safety. When things are safe push yourself to ask more questions. “What are you up to?,” “Can you tell me about your shirt?,” “What are you excited for?”
Kids are learning how to make decisions by making them in these choiceful spaces. For some kids, this is one of their first times. Sometimes it really helps to illuminate what you are seeing.
This can look like:
“I noticed a bunch of kids headed over to soccer if you want to go.”
“Thanks for helping the younger campers get their paints set up. I see you”
“It feels like when you go hard at gaga for the whole free time you get cranky”
The goal is to share a little of what you are seeing without putting too much judgment on the campers.
Finally, we are back to safety. When you are sitting playing Catan with 3 kids your job to supervise the whole space hasn’t changed. What that looks like is continuing to play Catan, but also scanning your whole area to see what is going on and making sure everyone is safe. It might mean getting up every 5 minutes or so and doing a lap.
Basically, you are playing zone defense and anything that happens in your zone is up to you. If you don’t feel like you can sit down and play Catan and do safety 360, it is more important that you choose safety 360.
Summing It Up
Remember the key to these free times is to number 1 keep kids safe and number 2 build connection. I believe the best camp experiences find ways to build these choiceful times into the very fabric of their camp environments.
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