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Most camps have some free time after lunch. Resident camps often have campers return to their cabin for rest hour. What happens during rest hour has a lot to do with the camp’s culture and the counselors in the cabin. It could be quiet time resting, reading or writing, or it could be controlled chaos, do-whatever-you-want-but-don’t-leave-the-cabin time.
Day camps, on the other hand, often have free time for campers that are finished eating lunch. This could last for 15 minutes or an hour, depending on the camp’s schedule. It’s nice, in this situation, to have equipment and supplies available for campers to use during their free time. Sure, some campers will stay at the tables and just talk (especially the older campers), but many of them will want to play with something.
Here are 25 options you can offer during free time that can be stored in bins or bags. I am not including activities that need to be set-up or need to have a structure like GaGa or volleyball. These ideas would also work for before and after care.
1. PAPER AND CRAYONS/MARKERS/PENCILS
There are loads of things you can do with just paper and a printer (or copier), including coloring sheets, mazes, word searches, Origami, paper planes, connect the dots, etc. Then again, some campers will simply want to draw. Provide activity sheets and plain paper along with crayons pencils, markers and/or colored pencils to your campers. Want to take it a step further? Add in some drawing shapes and maybe some books on drawing.
Kids (and *ahem* adults) can spend hours creating and building with Legos. Set a couple of big tubs of Legos down in the middle of a group of kids and their imagination will take hold. They will create all sorts of neat things (even if you can’t tell what they are). Yes, Legos can be expensive. I suggest that you reach out to your families to see if they would be willing to donate any. After all, little Johnny, that used to go to your camp as a kid, won’t be taking his Legos with him to college. Better you get them than the local thrift store.
3. MARBLE RUNS
I never actually played the game of Marbles growing up, but I had plenty of marbles. They were so cool looking and I liked rolling them around. Have you seen the marble runs you can buy where kids can race their chosen marbles? They are so cool! If you have sloping hill with sand or dirt, campers can create their own runs to race their marbles down.
4. SPORTS EQUIPMENT
This is a gimme. I am guessing you already have sports equipment you pull out for free time. However, do you have more than sports balls and Frisbees? How about Gator balls, fleece balls, Koosh balls, Hula Hoops, Scoops, Jump Ropes, plastic horseshoes, rubber chickens, scooter boards or catch pads? Not all kids enjoy throwing a football around. The more variety you have, the better.
5. PLAYING CARDS
Kids know a ton of card games that can be played with a typical set of playing cards. From War to Spoons, and Speed to Pounce, there are so many games that can be played with a simple deck of cards. It’s always good to have a few decks available, especially when someone is itching to show their new friends a magic trick.
6. TRADING CARD GAMES
If you’re willing to let campers bring their cards to camp, setting up a table or two for them to play would be great. While Pogs may have gone the way of the Dodo, trading card games like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic the Gathering are still going strong. Of course, some camps don’t allow these trading cards to be brought to camp to avoid the chances of the cards becoming ruined or stolen (amongst other reasons), and that’s too bad. For those kids who are into these games, finding others who share their passion is a quick way for them to make new friends. At one camp I worked for, these games were very popular with the after care kids.
7. OTHER CARD GAMES
Then there are your non-trading card games like Uno, Spot It, Skip-Bo, Mad Gab, You Gotta Be Kidding, and many more. While these games will not appeal to everyone (oh man, I have to read the directions?), there will be a handful of kids that will be all about it, especially if one of the counselors is willing to play with them.
8. FRIENDSHIP BRACELETS
There always seems to be a group of kids who want to make friendship bracelets, and it’s usually not for their friends. While some of them will take the chosen colors of floss and go off to weave and socialize with other campers, many more will need the help of a staff person to get started. If you have a staff person who enjoys making these bracelets, you’ll easily keep a good number of kids busy during free time.
9. LANYARDS (A.K.A. BOONDOGGLES)
If it’s not friendship bracelets, it’s lanyards. Campers who enjoy making lanyards will want to make them ALL.THE.TIME! To be honest, I have made my fair share, as well. Again, many campers will need help starting these and instructions on how to make them. I find the older kids enjoy making lanyards, while the younger ones have a difficult time with them.
10. BOARD GAMES
There are a slew of board games that you can put out. The best ones are easy to set-up and play, like chess, checkers, Connect 4, Battleship, Mastermind, Yahtzee and Guess Who? Games like Clue and Monopoly take too long to play. Leave those at home.
11. GIANT GAMES
Ready to supersize those games? It’s one thing to play Connect 4 at the table, it’s another thing to play the giant version on the field. Many games have been hit with the enlarging ray, including Jenga, checkers, Kerplunk and even Guess Who? Let’s not even talk about the life-size versions of games like billiards and foosball.
The YMCA has a program called the Camp Readers Program. The goal is to have kids read for 30 minutes each day at camp. I learned about this on the Summer Camp Professionals Facebook group where Ashlie Elliott writes, “The Y of USA pushes a program called ‘Camp Readers’. 30 min of reading everyday. We program it out, some suggestions are Magazine Monday, individual on Tuesday, group reading Wednesday, round robin on Thursday, audio books on Friday. This also allows you to promote your camp offers ‘summer learning loss prevention’ and is a huge marketing tool. Get the kids involved, challenge them to ‘A Million Minutes of Reading’ and track it on a huge thermometer in (your) lunch area.”
13. ELECTRONIC GAMES
I really enjoy electronic games like Bop-It and Simon Says. Having a bunch of these types of games can get a bit expensive, but there is something about the lights and sounds that draw kids (and me) in.
14. TOSSING GAMES
Who doesn’t enjoy the challenge of tossing a bean bag into a hole or tossing a ring onto a dowel? Cornhole (and other bean bag toss games), ring toss games and Ladder Golf are examples of some really great tossing games. Remember the Tic-Tac-Toe bean bag game, Toss Across? Is that still around?
15. R/C CARS
If you have the funds to get some R/C cars and make a dirt track, you will have an activity that campers will sprint to as soon as they hear those words, “It’s free time!” Remote-Controlled vehicles can be quite pricey, but they can also be reasonable depending on the quality. Take a look at this guest post for ideas on getting R/C vehicles for your camp.
Ah, Play-Doh. I don’t know what it is about Play-Doh that is so engaging. Maybe it’s the smell or that I can make different shapes with cookie cutters. Then again, maybe it’s just that I like rolling it into long skinny rolls. Whatever it is, Play-Doh is awesome…as long as the colors don’t mix and ruin it all. (I can’t stand that!)
18. STAFF LED ACTIVITIES
Some staff will jump right in and throw a ball around with campers or help start friendship bracelets, while others will stand back and supervise, making sure all the campers are safe. But then there are those few that have a special talent they’d like to share like dancing or juggling. It’s nice to give staff the chance to spontaneously teach a mini-workshop during free time to those campers who are interested.
19. BUTTON MAKING
I am a fan of making buttons. I even wrote a post about it. If you don’t have a good button machine, budget for one and get it. Notice I said a ‘good’ button machine. Nothing will kill your button making excitement like a cheap $30 machine. Plan to spend a few hundred dollars. After that, buttons cost around 10¢ each. Set out some paper circles and let the campers draw and create their own buttons. Then help them use the button machine to make a great camp keepsake.
20. BASIC SCAVENGER HUNT
Your campers are all eating lunch. You grab a couple of figurines (I’m partial to Smurfs), and you hide them around the area. In the middle of free time you shout out that you have hidden two figurines, and the two campers who find them get points for their team or a special prize (or just bragging rights). Then watch the frenzied actions of a bunch of kids frantically searching for what you’ve hidden. The joy of hunts…I can’t get enough of them.
If your free time takes place indoors, you should definitely get yourself a couple of tubs of Snowtime Anytime snowballs. These soft balls even crunch like a snowball. They are safe to throw at others, and I have spent hours having indoor snowball fights with kids and other staff. You don’t have to be Elf in the middle of winter in New York City to enjoy a good snowball fight.
Bubble, bubbles, everywhere. Making bubbles can be both relaxing and fun. It’s especially fun if you have different sized wands and/or some of those bubble guns. Be warned, if you’re not careful, a bubble party may just break out.
Puppets – some people really don’t like puppets and others are fine with them. It doesn’t seem like adults really like puppets. Maybe that’s why you rarely see them at camp. Thing is, kids like them…for the most part. Give some kids a set of hand puppets and a little puppet stage and some of them will put on shows for their friends. Now, I’m not saying you should invest in the nice, big puppets, just consider getting a few of the small hand puppets and maybe a couple of the animal puppets.
I LOVED building blanket forts as a kid. If you had made available some chairs, cardboard, blankets or sheets and then left me alone with a friend or two, we would have spent hours building a fort and playing in it with our action figures, reading books or coloring. If you can give kids supplies to build forts, do it.
25. SIDEWALK CHALK
Buy some sidewalk chalk and your sidewalks will never be the same. Instead they will be filled with color and whimsical pictures of flowers, smiley faces and rainbows. Let the kids go wild and draw to their heart’s content. At the end of the week spray it all down to make a clean art space for the next session.