I took the Pathfinders camping this weekend, and tried something new that worked out remarkably well. First let me describe the problem this scheme has solved.

When I first started leading in Pathfinders, upon arrival at a camp site, I would survey the situation, figure out what should be done first, and then assign a kid or two to carry it out. Then I’d figure out what else needed to be done and assign another kid or two. This would be repeated until everyone was busy with an assignment. Then I’d see kids having trouble with their assignment, and I’d jump in to help. In no time at all, I would become absorbed in the task at hand and not notice that the other kids were horsing around instead of discharging their duties.

So I started carrying a clipboard around to prevent myself from fully engaging in the task. This forced me to tell the kids how to do something rather than jumping in and doing it. Except that it didn’t always work. As I gave my attention to one group of kids, another group would finish (or abandon) their task, and I wouldn’t notice until the horsing around started again.

The beginnings of my new scheme were exercised two weeks ago when we camped at Bar Harbor, ME. I made up a list of tasks ahead of time and assigned kids (and adults) to each task. That worked better, but it was still imperfect as the kids had no incentive to execute. But it was useful, because I got a nice list of tasks out of it. As we set up camp, I ended up adding a few tasks that I was unable to think of ahead of time. I wrote them down.

Before we camped last weekend, I turned that list of tasks into a dozen cards. Each card had a title and a somewhat detailed description of the task. The twelve tasks were divided into three groups, A, B, and C. The A tasks needed to be done first, followed by the B tasks, etc. Each card also had a number of points printed on it. Difficult or unpleasant tasks were worth more points than easy, fast, or fun tasks.

Then I divided the kids into four teams. Each team had an adult mentor, and a mix of kids (teens, and younger ones). The idea was that the teens should be able to teach and direct the younger ones. If they had questions, they had an adult mentor to turn to.

The team with the most points was to be dismissed to eat first at every meal, followed by the team with the second highest point total, etc. The team with the fewest points was dismissed last, but even then, they weren’t really “last” because the staff receives that designation (with myself being the very last).

Before we started, I had them all pitch their own tents and stow their sleeping bags & luggage in them. As they finished that, they were to assemble at the trailer. When their whole team was finished, they could choose a task A card. When they finished their A task to their mentor’s satisfaction, they could choose a B task, and so forth. When they finished their C task, they could choose another C task if one was available (and if they wanted more points).

This worked like a charm. For the first time ever, I had kids coming to me to get set-up tasks. They worked quickly, efficiently, and without complaint. Cool.

One idea I had and abandoned was that each kid would choose a task of his own. If a task needed four people, they would have to wait for four people to choose that task. I am convinced that the team approach was way better. First, I only had to remember the order of four teams rather than the order of 20 kids. Second, they had the opportunity to develop teamwork. Third, they knew that if they slacked off, their whole team would eat last. Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing.

I did end up adding one more incentive. On our weekend campouts, we typically eat six meals (Friday supper through Sunday lunch). Since I had already divided them into four fairly balanced teams, I decided that the two teams with the most points would get kitchen duty once, while the other two teams would get two shifts. That’s not even a horrible punishment, because in the past I would divide them into three teams and everyone would get two shifts.

I was also careful to remind team four that they were indeed not last to eat, because they were still eating before the staff did. Plus we’re always careful to have enough food, so no one goes hungry on these trips.

After we had finished setting up camp, the adults there remarked on how smoothly everything had gone. They were pleased that they had to do no prodding or cajoling. I must say that I was pretty pleased as well.