To give free time, or not to give free time, that is the question:

Middle School Friends

I’ve been thinking a lot about free time at Middle School Friends. Free time is often the most coveted activity at a gathering, but it can also be the most isolating. Some Middle Schoolers thrive playing foursquare, board and card games, reading, drawing or talking; other MSF’s feel alone during free time, have a hard time connecting, or use free time to push the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior within the program. Free time is simultaneously one of the most positive and negative activities at any gathering. As I see it the positives include:

Free time under the parachute tent! Photo credit: Hannah Mayer

Free time under the parachute tent! Photo credit: Hannah Mayer

  • Free time is the opportunity for Middle Schoolers to connect with each other in an authentic way, to have non-structured conversations, and to play their favorite games/do their favorite activities.
  • While we try to structure the activities for everyone in such a way that they can be enjoyable for MSF’s of all temperaments, free time can be a time for introverts to take some time off from the group. Being with a group of people 24 hours a day for an entire weekend can be exhausting for introverts, and having a little time to read or draw can be a huge relief.
  • There is something magical about adults spending unstructured time with young people. Free time is when Middle School Friends can talk with the wonderful Friendly Adult Presences that help run Middle School Friends gatherings about anything they want to. I believe there is a huge amount of value in giving Middle Schoolers access to adult role models outside of their families.
  • Free time is the time when anything can happen. An unscheduled congo line, everyone hiding in a fort made out of playground equipment and a parachute, an impromptu sing-a-long, etc.

Unfortunately, free time can also be one of the more negative forces at gatherings:

  • Free time can feel isolating for Middle Schoolers who don’t feel well integrated into the group yet, or who have a hard time in non-structured activities.
  • Free time can sometimes function as an opportunity to test the boundaries of the program. Unfortunately, caring for a large group means that the rules for everybody are a little tighter than they might be for one person. Perhaps one MSFer would be perfectly fine climbing the tree, but there are several others for who might misjudge the agility and skill involved, and put themselves in a danger. In trying to be fair to everyone, I try not to grant privileges to some that I can’t extend to others, so free time can feel restrictive to those used to having more freedom at home or in other communities.
  • The flip side of free time being the time when anything can happen, is that it can be the opportunity for Middle Schoolers to bring inappropriate games, teasing or other negative activities to the MSF community.

In a time span as short as a weekend, there is an opportunity cost for every scheduled activity, so I consider carefully how much free time I should be scheduling. For our last gathering we had an hour and fifteen minutes of scheduled free time. In addition, there are short periods of free time before and after each meal (in which one group is working on food prep or clean-up). Last years gatherings didn’t feature any scheduled unstructured free time. After one trial gathering, I think free time is going to stay on the schedule this year, at least for the next couple of gatherings. It was bit grueling for the adults, but fun for everyone.  The trick, I think, is to schedule activities afterwards that allow the adults to take shifts sneaking off to take a nap!