I’ve helped with running a summer camp in Amherst for the third year in a row now. I’ve always kind of used it as a laboratory for trying out new games and activities with the kids. The first year, we stuck with pretty traditional improv and drama games. These were meant to be fun, and more process-oriented. In my first post I mentioned part of my background in creative drama. I studied it in college, and it’s a great tool for educators. It differs from formal “drama” or “theater” education in that it usually isn’t building towards some kind of final performance or product. It’s more like structured play, in which you simply explore something within a set of rules or guidelines.
In a classroom, that “something” is often a book, a story, a scientific concept, or some kind of problem that a group has to solve. The method for acting all this out is almost always improvisational, although if you’re dramatizing a storybook, that might not be the case. The games I play with my summer camp/after-school kids usually don’t have any kind of curriculum behind them (they would sniff that out in a second). My games are more about having fun, being ridiculous, and hopefully building a love for theater in the long run.
Last summer I tried to put on an actual play, and it was a total disaster. Our camp has this whimsical, free-wheeling philosophy where we encourage the children to make their own choices about how they want to structure their day. In theory, it sounds great (and in a lot of ways it is), but if you’ve ever tried to direct a group of kids in a play before, I’m sure this sounds like big trouble to you. Such was my sense of hubris. The thing is, I have directed kids before, many times. It’s challenging, often frustrating, but very satisfying in the end. The thing is, all of those times it was at a different camp, a performing arts camp. The system was backing me up there, but last year I was at the mercy of children’s attention spans. If they didn’t like what they were doing, they could leave. And leave they did. And argue. And throw tantrums. It was a lot like many of my college productions actually. By the end, we decided to scrap the whole thing and make a mockumentary about the making of the play. That was way more fun, and easier to pull off. It was really funny, and I’d upload it, but there’s privacy to consider.
This year I’ve returned to the Creative Drama roots, and tried out a bunch of new games that my regular group has been having a blast with. And I want to share some of them! To the kids, I refer to games like these as “story drama” or “story games.” I’m not sure how to appropriately categorize them, but they resemble many existing party games, LARPs, murder-mysteries or theatrical warm-ups. One thing I love about theater is how it’s definitions tend to make it blend into other disciplines, or even other mediums. I still have never tried live-action roleplaying, though I’ve always wanted to. That to me describes these games pretty well though, a game, a story, an improvised theatrical production, all happening at once. One that I tried out recently, which was a hit, we named “The Prince/Princess of ________.” Here’s what you need –
- A group of at least 3, although many more is preferable. I ran the game with a mixed age group, about a dozen kids, ages 7-10.
- Some wicked fancy costumes.
- Some kind of chair, the bigger and more cushy the better.
- The adult in the group will be teaching and facilitating, and they might find a pencil and paper useful.
How to Run the Game
- In phase one, choose one group member to act out the role of the Prince or Princess. This is the ruler of an imaginary city, with lots of problems. I explained to my group that “a long long time ago” the country of Italy was composed of many city-states that were ruled by Princes. My group is mostly sassy little girls, so we ended up with a Princess. My preferred method for choosing the Princess was with a blind majority vote from the whole group. You might find other methods more effective, including just choosing one yourself as a facilitator, randomly or otherwise. Everyone else will role-play advisers and courtiers.
- Phase two, come up with a name for your city. In various iterations of the game, we came up with Florencia, Rosetta, and Beefcastle (I let the boys pick the name one day, since they were always a minority vote).
- Phase three, come up with at least two factions. Explain to the group that a faction is a group of like-minded individuals who want the Princess to act a certain way, and change the way the city is run. If you’re looking to explore certain ideas with your kids, you might want to make the factions pre-set. War and Peace are good ones (which we’ve tried), Rich and Poor, Art and Money. If you’re letting them brainstorm their own factions, try to encourage idealistically opposed groups.
- Phase four, your job as a facilitator is to role-play a master of ceremonies, who organizes the functions of the Princess’s Court. The game is structured around “the order of the day,” in which you present a problem to the Princess. The problem can be anything you can imagine, but it needs to have clear choices which are tied to the factions. For example, in our very first game, we had a War faction and a Fashion faction (I let them come up with their own). One problem that I presented the court with was the threat of an invading army. The choices were as follows: we can meet them on the field of battle, or we can buy them off with some of our finest suits and dresses. The job of the Princess finally comes into play here; only she can make the decision. If you have trouble improvising situations, then I recommend using fixed factions, and writing up some problems for the group beforehand.
- Allow the group a few minutes to argue in favor of their factions, speak with the Princess, and make their voices heard. This part is chaotic, but fun, and some interesting situations can emerge from it. I found that I never really had to intervene too much in organizing the debate. The speakers naturally emerged from their factions, and those who didn’t want to speak found that quietly influencing the speakers was a good way to take part. There were times when it was helpful to simply take turns so that each member of the court had their say, if they wanted one.
- The Princess makes her decision, the facilitator narrates the outcome, Rinse and Repeat. I would usually pretend to read a letter from a messenger, with a dramatic flourish. The actual outcome doesn’t matter all that much, unless you’re playing for points (see below). After going through this cycle (introduce problem, argue, make a decision, deliver outcome), it helps to have a little recess, in which the kids can just role-play their characters and goof off. Sometimes having an actual snack, or cups and juice, can sweeten the deal.
Problems to Watch Out For
Be careful of the social dynamics in your group. As fun as role-playing European court politics can be, it can get a little… back-stabby. Make sure that there is no discussion beforehand in the group if you’re voting in the Prince/Princess. Don’t let your group form actual cliques and voting blocks, that’s just for the role-playing. If this is a problem in your group, consider either exercising tighter control on choosing the Prince/Princess role, or using one of the variations below.
If any of your kids decide they want to leave a faction and join another one, or form a new one, let them. Just explain that a faction only needs one person, numbers don’t matter, only the Princess’s decision.
Playing for Points: It can be exciting to make the Princess feel a bit threatened in her position, so these rules can be introduced to amp up the intrigue. When you deliver the outcome of the Princess’s decision, you need to designate one option as the “right” option (and it should clearly be the best outcome). If the Princess chooses the right option, she gets a point. If she doesn’t choose correctly, the point goes to the faction who represents the right option. At the end of the game (you can end it whenever, but at least three cycles is probably good), see who has the most points. If the Princess has the most, she remains on the throne. If one of the factions take over, she is dethroned, and that faction now runs the city! Let them role-play that how they like, but end the game before they start arguing about “the new Princess!”
The Republic: Instead of Italian city-states, this is more inspired by Italian merchant republics. Choose a group of children to act as a ruling council for the city, at least three. The decision-making process now becomes a vote. You can still play with points for this variation if you like, it just means one faction becomes dominant at the end. We came up with this idea when one girl declared the Princess’s decisions unjust, and that the people were not being represented. Nothing really came of it, but we had a good discussion about it afterwards.
You might notice that there isn’t really a process here for creating names or identities for the children playing. I usually don’t do that, because I often work within a limited time frame. But having your group come up with names and personalities for their courtiers is a great idea, and will help immerse themselves in the game. It just takes a while. Try it if you have the time!
Anyway, that’s all! I hope you find this writeup useful, or at least interesting! Until next time –