Ideas for Interactive Play

Story and Photos by Gary Forster

According to my mentor, Ron Kinneman, creativity is the habit of taking two existing ideas and banging them together. He says the secret to getting ideas banging together is to first have a bunch of “borrowed” ideas bouncing around your head.

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To give you a head start on your idea banging, here are some sure-fired winners from our R&D (Rip-off and Duplicate) department.

Miniature Golf
You could spend thousands of dollars on concrete to build a permanent golf course—and that would be fine for some occasional fun when the weather is good. Or, you could make the course out of wood in portable pieces, say 42 inches by 60 inches, so the various parts could be easily lifted, connected and carried in the back of a mini-van allowing you to set them up in a recreation hall on a rainy day or take them to a school fair as a public relations event in the spring.

But the best I ever saw was at Camp Frank A Day in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. They gave the kids a pile of two-by-fours, some old putters, plastic tent stakes, some bricks and other “junk” to build their own course. The kids scrounged the whole camp for anything they could find to make the obstacles—an old boat, a wheelchair from the nurse, tires from the shop, a gutter from the scrap yard. They spent a week building it, changing it, and playing it. On pick-up day every parent had to “Come see!” their accomplishment and on Saturday afternoon it went into a pile, the grass was mowed, and it was ready to be re-built on Monday.

Since then I’ve seen this tried at day camps where the kids get off the bus each day with more stuff they’ve “borrowed” from their dad’s garage to add to the course. Better than any “low ropes” initiative, these kids are creatively solving a real problem, building an enterprise, and making friends all at the same time.

Boatbuilding
Did you have a creek near your house when you were a kid? Well now-a-days most parents won’t let their kids play unsupervised in the woods (or near the creek) and, as a result, they’re missing out on something magical. With this boat-building program you can replicate the freedom and fun of racing boats down the creek near your house in the safety and security of camp.

Take a look at the accompanying photo of kids sailing their boats in the little pond. It’s just six inches deep and made from black rubber pond-liner you can get at any home improvement store.

What’s cool about this pond is they made one side of the pond look like a dock and on the other side they used the pond kit pump to build a long “river”. Nearby is a picnic table with a pile of scrap wood pieces and a box with hammers, goggles, and nails.

Kids build boats. Then they sail boats. (Heck, they sail sticks and flip-flops, too!) It’s that simple.

They’ll do it for an hour and the counselor will say, “I’ve got some rubber bands, do you think you could add power to your boats? How about some sails?”

Wow! More boat-building, more sailing and hours of friend-making. And, at the end of the summer, you simply roll up the pond liner and save it for next year. Voila’—magic.

Roofball
Rabidly popular at several Midwest camps, this game only takes a sloped roof (like a cabin or lodge) and a rubber playground ball. Campers and staff line up about 20 feet away from the building facing the roof. The first camper “serves” the ball up on to the roof with an underhand volleyball serve. The goal is to hit the ball on to the roof so it doesn’t go over, but rather rolls back down off the front edge. The server goes to the back of the line and the next player runs up to the roof edge, using a one or two-handed volleyball strike, they tap the ball back up onto the roof so it’s ready to roll or bounce back down to the next player. Sound simple?

Strategy comes from where you place your “return” on the roof so it surprises the person behind you. Bunts, lobs, and wild funny bounces keep it entertaining for hours. No limit to the number of kids who can play, no teams, and lots of time to talk while the line moves forward. (Yes, avoid or protect glass windows!)

The game was so popular at Camp Piomingo in Kentucky that an Eagle Scout built a “roof” near their flagpole because there was no building close enough to play the game!

Carpetball
Thank goodness for Google, or dozens of camps never would have learned about this terrific game, invented at a camp. Here’s the concept: rolling pool balls down a pool table is fun. What if the table was twice as long (but only half as wide) and you could do it outside? More anticipation and more fun!

Players stand on either end of the 16-foot long table and arrange their five balls in front of the table-wide trough that is the single “pocket” on each end. Then they take turns rolling the cue ball the full length of the table, trying to knock their opponent’s balls, shuffleboard-style, into the end pocket. Dozens of kids line up for their turn to play, to watch and talk. You can speed the game along by saying that a game is over either when all five of one player’s balls are off the table, or when three “scratches” are rolled.

On the Web you’ll find the same easy-to-follow building instructions (see links at the end of the story) my son and I used to help create two carpetball tables for Camp Tecumseh. The only change we made was to cut the legs six inches shorter to make it a little safer by getting the table below “face level.”

The number one concern I’ve heard from the dozens of camps who have built carpetball, “One table isn’t enough! Kids love it so much they won’t quit to go to other activities!”

The Pony Ride Go-Cart Track
The best horse program for first-time riders I’ve ever seen is the one I found at Disney World and brought back to Camp Jewell in Connecticut. I call it the “Pony Ride Go-Cart Track”.

Disney used to have a string of 14 horses with three wranglers providing a 45-minute trail ride for guests at their Fort Wilderness Campground. It was expensive for Disney and not much fun for kids who get bored after spending ten minutes staring at the rear-end of the big horse in front of them. “Dad, are we there yet?”

Eventually, Disney decided to focus on the experience of these first time riders and instead bought two ponies. (See the cost savings already?) They built a wood-chip and sand trail that winds (s-turns actually) through one-quarter acre of wooded land and lined it with a split-rail style fence only 32 inches tall on both sides.

The guest’s experience starts with a nice shaded place to wait in line at the old-west sign “Horses for Hire.” Pay two dollars and the child gets on the pony and dad or mom (and during the summer at our camp, an LIT or CIT) is handed the reigns to lead the pony and rider down the trail.

Parent and child talk to each other, look at each other, stop to look at the petting-zoo animals dotted through the trees in nice pens along the way. After about 10 minutes they’re back at the start. Then they’ve got two possibilities: “Daddy! Daddy! That was great, can I do it again?” They get back in line and pay another two dollars when it’s their turn.

Or, “Daddy that was fun, can we go to the beach now?” They leave happy either way. The Disney manager told me they actually net more money on the two ponies than the 14 horses. That’s what we need at every day and resident camp for kids under the age of 10, to get kids to love horses. They’ll be more likely to enroll in our more intensive horse programs after a positive first experience.

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.

Useful Carpetball Links

Free Plans: http://www.duke.edu/~mfc5/ultracarpetballplans.htm

Carpetball Tables for Sale: http://www.rockmfg.com/