Trading Screen Time for Social Time

Okay, let’s start with full disclosure. I am already both an educator and a big fan of board games, so there may be some bias here. This isn’t going to be a balanced argument both for and against kids using screens and personal electronic devices. This is going to be a heroic tale of how I stood alone (with help and backing from others) against the forces of electronic zombie-ism to free attention-captive children from the shackles of screens full of hypnotic, colourful moving characters and brought them to the haven of camaraderie and social interaction. There might also be hyperbole and over-dramatic description in here somewhere too.

During the summer and over March Break, I worked at a camp in Mississauga that teaches archery and fencing to children between the ages of 8 and 14, run by the Ontario Centre for Classical Sport. I have been doing this for 6 years, and the atmosphere and instruction are wonderful. The only thing that the staff felt needed some change was the prevalence of electronic devices that came out during snack and lunch times. This didn’t make the children  totally anti-social; indeed, many would gather around those who had the devices to watch them tapping the screen as fast as they could, drawn in by the colourful images. But was there any value to this?

Also, during lunchtime (as well as in the before and after extended hours), in order to help keep the children focused while eating, rather than running around, we would put on a movie (always a medieval, sword or archery themed movie) in the lunchroom, and they would sit fairly quietly to watch while they ate. This kept them calm and gave them a chance to relax from the morning’s activity, but again, they just sat and stared at a screen. Staff, including the facility owner and president weren’t entirely happy with the situation, but couldn’t quite come up with what is was that was needed to make it better.

Then one year, at one of the community centres where we ran our camp for the older age group, a fateful event beyond our control changed the way we would run the camp: the TV wasn’t available. “Oh no, but we always watch a movie,” gasped some of our veteran campers. “I’ll just get out my tablet and/or phone,” shrugged some others. “Are we going to be able to keep all 30 kids entertained over the lunch hour?” wondered the staff. “I’ll just read the book I brought,” said my new favourite campers. So what would we do?

That evening I considered the conundrum and decided to bring in something for the campers to do. I would have a look at my collection of games and thought about what I should bring. There were a few criteria I had in mind. First, I’d like to keep a theme to match the camp, and try to bring game that either had a medieval setting, or involved swords or archery in some way. I also needed games that could be played in a relatively short period of time and were easy to learn. And finally, I thought I should try to bring games that didn’t have too many pieces that the campers might lose.

The first box I noticed on my shelf was Conquest of the Empire, a Risk-like game set in the Roman Empire. It’s historical, but with a game play time of between 2 and 4 hours and 350 pieces, it didn’t meet all of my criteria. So I kept looking. In the end, I decided to bring Pirate Fluxx, and fun card game with a pirate theme. The Fluxx series of games is interesting, because the rules start out basic, but then get more complex as you play, since the cards played change the rules. The players have to pay attention to what’s going on, even when it isn’t their turn, and they have to read the cards carefully. I also brought Timeline, a game about setting events on cards in the right order based on the year in which the event occurred. Yup, I thought, I’m going to trick them into learning, holidays from school be damned!

The next day I brought the games out at lunch and taught two groups of campers who were interested how to play them. They seemed to be into the games during lunch, but when I started to notice the interest was at the end of the day, when we had finished our activities, some of the campers immediately ran over to me and started asking for me to get the games out. I made sure that the extended hours staff also knew how to play the games, and entrusted them to their care.

As though I had, through example, given them permission to share their own interests and set aside the risk of being uncool, some of the campers brought in games of their own the next day. Two of them brought other versions of Fluxx, and one brought Munchkin, a card game that parodies classic monster-fighting, treasure hunting adventure games like Dungeons and Dragons. That lunch time, there were more children playing board and card games with each other than there were children with electronic devices out. And that’s the way it went for the rest of the week. But what about the following week? Our camp runs 8 weeks during the summer, so I had some time to plan ahead.

Of course, I couldn’t count on the campers to have and bring games, so to make sure that we had enough to entertain everybody during lunch, I decided to increase our game inventory. I brought in Zombie Dice, which is a great game for practicing probability. In this game, players roll dice to achieve the best result they can (collecting brains), and they can choose to keep rolling right up until a bad result is rolled and they lose the points they’d gained that turn, or, upon seeing that the probability of that bad result is high, choose to end their turn and keep their points. I also brought in Castle Panic, which is a cooperative game in which all the player are on the same team trying to defeat the game by protecting their castle from attacking orcs, goblins and trolls by strategically using their knights, archers and swordsmen. I particularly like the cooperative aspect of this game. The players must work together, and they can’t gang up on each other to eliminate players since they either all win or they all lose. Again, every lunch and after hours time had campers clamouring to play. Nobody missed the lunch time movie of the past, and we were seeing fewer and fewer electronic devices.

I took the story of our success to the boss. I told him of how focused the kids were on the activity during those break times, and how they were playing together, and without screens. Board games are more social, I told him, and it’s a good benefit to the camp. He was receptive and pleased, so I went for the pitch. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have some games owned by the camp that we could bring out, so even if I’m not there with mine, they’d be available?” I know the pause after I finished the question seemed longer to me than it actually was, because I know the owner is a great guy who wanted to do the best for the camps and the kids, but I also knew that there were budgetary concerns.    “What kind of budget do you need? Will $300 be enough? Get some games and bring me the receipts.” Is there a better feeling than that which you get right after someone tells you to go buy games with their money? Or is that just me?

I started with the classics: two decks of regular playing cards and two chess/checkers sets. There’s more choice than you’d think when it comes to checkers and chess, but I thought that the wooden set had more class and matched the theme. Oh yes, the theme. I set for myself the same criteria for these games as I did for the games I chose to bring from home. Of course, I had to compromise on the pieces somewhat, as many of the good games require counters of some sort. I knew I would get a camp copy of Castle Panic, as that was a very popular game with the campers. I also picked up a pile of six-sided dice and some plastic cups (in company colours) for Liar’s Dice, the game played on Davy Jones’ ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I bought a copy of Timeline for the history and educational value, as well as Pirate Fluxx, so I could take my copies back home again. But what else? I would need to do some research. For this I used the Boardgame Geek website, which has great information about and reviews of games. I also sent an e-mail to my local (okay it’s not local, it’s in Hamilton and I’m in Mississauga, but I know the owner and he’s a great guy) hobby store for suggestions. In the end, I added Medieval Academy (which is in theme and fun!) and Catan Junior, a slightly simplified version of the very popular Settler’s of Catan. The junior version has a pirate theme, and once players understand the rules, it can be played in under 45 minutes.

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These are the games from the camp game library.

During the following March Break, I was working with the younger camp, and they were lining up to get in on the games, and one day at lunch time, we had more kids at the tables playing games than there were in the lunch room watching the movie and we’ve gone to a no-device policy. Even the games that I intended for the older camp during the summer were being played. This means, of course, that I would need to go and ask for more budget to buy another copy of Castle Panic since we ran the two camps simultaneously at different locations during the summer. And I think it makes sense that the older kids should get the expansion with the wizard’s tower, right?

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Teaching a camper how to play Medieval Academy

The unfortunate and sad epilogue is that these wonderful camps are no longer around as OCCS closed its doors this year. I very much enjoyed being part of the staff there, met many people who became close friends, and saw children grow each summer until they aged out of camp, became camp volunteers and then even camp staff.

Any of our readers who are interested in fencing and learning the art of swordplay can check out the fencing programs of West End Swords, which is run by the former OCCS staff and owners.

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