Sunday, October 18, 2015

Amaze Journey Weekend

So far, I haven't talked much about Journeys on this blog. Our troop has done two so far (Amuse as Juniors and Amaze as Cadettes), but frankly, I still don't feel all that comfortable in leading, planning or facilitating them. On both, we struggled to really make the Journeys come "alive" for our girls - too many of the activities felt like schoolwork and too many of the conversations felt forced.

But there is one element I'd like to share - a piece that not only came together as planned, but exceeded all of our expectations. We had already planned a fall camping trip to a Council lodge, which meant we wouldn't have to worry about outdoor cooking and would all be together under one roof. It seemed like a good fit to plan a teambuilding weekend in conjunction with the Amaze Journey.

To be clear, this is not an outline for a "Journey in a Weekend." I know there are more and more Councils offering these types of programs, and there is a probably a way this could be adapted to fit that need, but we also did some Journey activities in meetings leading up to the campout, as well as the Take Action project later in the year. While at first glance, some of these games/activities bear little resemblance to the Journey outline, I thought they all fit well with the overall core messages of teamwork, relationship-building, cooperation, problem-solving and communication. 

It's been a couple years, and I'm working from memory, so hopefully I don't forget too much. Many of these activities are just fun (Journey or no Journey), but it's also important to have a debrief discussion after each to allow the girls to reflect on the experience, what they learned, how the activity fits with real-life experiences, etc.

Alligators -  All you need for this activity is some painter's tape/duct tape. This site also has some good starter questions for the debrief.

Tied Together Obstacle Course - I laid out a short obstacle course, giving the girls things to go around, over and under. (I just used supplies we had on hand - rope, chairs, bags, etc., but you can get creative.) As a troop, the girls had to bind themselves together, leg to leg, using bandanas. They then had to maneuver as a group through the obstacle course.

Minefield - Lay out "mines" across a space - we actually just used construction paper on the floor. Divide the girls into pairs - one is blindfolded and one calls out the directions to help their partner navigate through the minefield. You can do one team at a time, but if you have the space, it's more interesting to do 2-3 teams at a time so they have to learn to block out the other teams and focus on their partner only.

Conversation Starters - Our girls know each other pretty well and for the most part get along great. But during this weekend we really wanted to get the girls to go beyond the usual chatting, open up and learn more about each other. I typed up a number of questions, printed them up and glued them to index cards. These are great to pull out when there's downtime, or during meals/snacks. You can have all the girls answer the same question, or just go around and have each person draw a new card. If you search teen conversation starters, you'll find lots of suggestions out there - like this, this or this.

Marshmallow Building Activity -  Numerous versions of this floating around the interwebs, but we basically split them into teams of 3-5, gave them spaghetti noodles and marshmallows, set a time limit, and asked them to build the tallest structure possible. Besides encouraging creativity and design thinking, it's a great way to use up stale mini-marshmallows. Am I the only one that seems to have a stockpile of these in my cabinet?

Communication Styles - We discussed the four communication styles in reaction to conflict -- passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Here's a good review if you need it.  We asked the girls to think of examples of each in their own life. Then we gave them various scenarios and had them split up into groups to act out the way each communication style would approach the problem. While we all tend to have a default mode, this exercise also goes to show that we can adapt and adjust our communication style to be more assertive in approaching a problem.

Step Right/Step Left - The basic premise of this activity is to line up in a single file, and then step right or left based on whether they agree or disagree with statements read by the leader. There are numerous versions of this I found online, but I modified to fit our goals. We actually played this twice with two different objectives. In both cases, to keep the girls as open and honest as possible, we blindfolded the girls.

The first we played, we focused on universal experiences.

  1. I sometimes feel like my parents don't understand me.
  2. There's something about my appearance I would like to change.
  3. I've lied to a friend or my parents before.
  4. I sometimes feel pressure to be perfect.
  5. I've felt left out before.
  6. I've talked about a friend behind her back before.
  7. I've shared a friend's secret.
  8. I've felt rejected by a friend or guy before.
  9. I've done something I'm ashamed or embarrassed of.
  10. I worry about my future sometimes.
  11. I've cheated, or felt pressure to cheat in school.
  12. I feel like if my friends knew everything about me, they might not still like me.
For the most part, when the girls remove their blindfolds after this series of questions, they'll find they are still pretty close together. This can spark a good discussion about the fact that we all share common feelings and experiences, even though we may feel like the only one.

The second time we played, we focused on unique values and perspectives. There are a million different directions you can go on this one, but here's some possibilities.
  1. It's sometimes ok to tell a lie, if it spares someone's feelings.
  2. I prefer to have just a few close friends rather than a large circle of acquaintances.
  3. It's ok to break the rules sometimes.
  4. I like to wear name-brand or trendy clothes.
  5. I'm always on time for events, and hate being late.
  6. Given the choice, I'd rather do something athletic than artistic.
  7. Wealth and income is a good measure of success.
  8. The popular people are usually the most attractive.
  9. I'm usually the leader or decision-maker in my group of friends.
  10. Getting good grades is extremely important to me.
  11. I'm pretty sure I know what I want do as a career when I'm older.
  12. I tend to be a night owl.
This exercise tends to showcase the differences among girls - and the fact that even among friends, there may be differences in values, beliefs and personalities.

It's helpful to have a few more activities than you think you'll need, because it's  hard to predict how long the girls might want to spend on each and where the discussion will go.

One of the most memorable and surprising activities we did was also the one I most debated even doing. Since this post is already getting too long, I'll share this in a separate post.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday Funday Links: Homemade Christmas Gifts

It's still a ways off from Christmas, although I'm sure I'll be seeing decorations pop up in any day in stores. But as a leader, it's never too early to start planning. We don't usually do a gift exchange as a troop, but we often make gifts for girls to take home to family members. I gathered some of the ones we've done here, and a few others that caught my eye. As you can see, my preference is toward items that can be eaten, used up or used to decorate (no macaroni necklaces!) Wrap them up and add a homemade card, and the girls have something they're proud to give. Note: my troop members all happen to celebrate Christmas, but of course, you should keep your troop's cultural and religious backgrounds in mind.

Brownies In a Jar - There are probably a million of these "mixes in a jar" recipes out there (cookies, cocoa, muffins, etc.) Most of the work involved is measuring (and multiplying out the amounts for a troop to assemble).

Stacked Hot Chocolate Snowmen - A spin on the previous link, this is actually a gift I received from one of my Scouts.

Candy Cane Sugar Scrub - Super simple with only a few ingredients needed - sugar, oil (we used baby oil), food coloring & peppermint oil. We ended up finding smaller plastic juice containers at a local recycling/craft shop, but I'm sure there are any number of containers that would be cute.

Bath Fizzies - Another one that mostly just involves measuring out ingredients. Would also make a great Mother's Day gift, or something to keep in mind if your troop ever does a spa night.

Pringles Can Christmas Card Holder - This is actually a craft I did as a Brownie myself, with a few changes. While you can use a solid color of yarn, it looks even better if you can find the variegated yarn in holiday colors (red, green and white.) Instead of the crocheted piece on top, we glued down some cotton batting and stuck on a pine cone.

Clothespin Card Holder - Another cute spin on the cardholder theme.

Poinsettia Napkin Rings - We made a slightly different version of these when I was younger, but I can't seem to find that pattern anywhere. But these are actually a littler nicer looking - and would never have thought of using different colors.

Homemade 'Mock' Thin Mints - In our area, the cookie sale doesn't kick off until January, so these can help tide over family members. And despite the simple ingredients, I did think they tasted pretty similar to the original. We sprinkled red and green sugar on the top for decoration, bagged them up and gave them along with the following recipe.

Dipped Pretzel Rods - Since these also use chocolate, they were easy to do in an evening with the previous recipe. You can also decorate with sprinkles, nuts, whatever.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Your 1st Girl Scout Trip: The Planning Before the Planning

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." - Saint Augustine

I love to travel, although I do it far less than I would like. And what I love almost as much as the actual trip is planning the trip. Researching destinations, reading reviews, plotting itineraries, budgeting - a spur-of-the-moment road trip robs me of all this joy. (I know, I'm the worst nightmare for all you spontaneous folks out there.)

Luckily, there's no such thing as a spontaneous road trip with a Girl Scout troop. And as our troop gets older, travel was one of those things I was most looking forward to sharing with the girls.

Our troop took its first extended trip about a year ago and is planning our next one for summer 2016. We're not experts or globetrotters by any means; in fact, both of our trips have been within driving distance. But I thought it could still be helpful to share the process we used and some tips we learned along the way for any troop that is planning its first trip. But because troop trip planning is not a one-meeting deal, I'm going to split this up between several posts.

While the majority of trip planning should involve the girls, this post is about what probably needs to happen before the girls start - let's call it the leader reality check. For me, these were the questions that my co-leader and I needed to chat through and get our heads straight on before we involved the girls.

1) Are the girls ready (emotionally, mentally, physically) ready to travel? And am I ready to take them?

Parents will ultimately make the call as to whether they're comfortable with their daughter traveling with the troop. But an oft-overlooked factor, is whether you, as a leader, feel comfortable that each girl is ready to travel with you. This was really a non-issue for our troop. I had a lot of worries going into our first trip - whether we'd budgeted enough, whether I'd get lost driving, whether we'd drive each other crazy - but I never for once worried that our girls wouldn't be able to handle it. This is not true for every troop, and there's no shame in admitting that you're not quite there. If in the course of a regular GS year, you and your co-leader are at odds, you're embarrassed to take your girls in public and your parents question your every move, a trip out of town is only going to amplify all of these concerns. Traveling is also part of a progression - I would never have considered taking my girls if I hadn't already done multiple day trips and camping weekend trips with them first.

2) How far am I willing to go? And for how long?

This goes along with the maturity and progression issue addressed in question one, and of course, girls can have a say in this. But if you can only take three days off of work, there is little point in allowing the girls to plan a weeklong trip. Girl-led means girls should be actively involved in the decision-making of the troop; it does not mean that troop leaders are silent onlookers who play no part in the consensus. For our troop's first trip, we, as leaders, felt comfortable with a driving distance of 5 hours or less and a stay of 3-4 nights. Our girls were good with this too, but your mileage may vary.

3) What's your troop's fundraising tolerance? And how far out are you comfortable planning/saving?

Let's face it, regardless of how many financial literacy badges you've done, most girls have little concept of money. Now of course, trip planning is a good way of bringing this lesson home to them, and in the next post, I'll show you some ideas for doing so. But assuming you've been with your troop a while, you probably still have a better gut instinct on their fundraising threshold. Even if girls are gung ho, are the parents dragging their feet? Do you have to send out a search party for cookie forms or money? Are the kids overcommitted to the extent that planning a cookie booth is nearly impossible? You as a leader have a good sense of this, and ignoring this sense is a good recipe for trouble.

In addition, saving for a trip usually doesn't happen overnight. The fundraising for our first trip was accomplished in a year. Our next trip is two years. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable with any longer than that. While trips give girls a reason to stay in Scouts, they shouldn't be the only reason someone sticks around - and everyone (leaders, girls & parents) needs to be comfortable with the goals.

You'll notice I didn't talk much about parent finances/contributions. We did require a minimal deposit from each girl/family to ensure they had some skin in the game and to help assist with costs, but I'm not kidding when I said it was minimal. (For our first trip, it was just $50, with $25 returned as spending money if they followed through. For our next trip, it will be $50-$100.) I know there are parents who would probably just as soon cut a check for the trip as drive their daughter to a cookie booth. But I strongly believe that the budgeting/planning part of a trip is as important to the girls' learning experience as the actual travel part. so I am not quick too eager to cut it out. This is a personal decision based on our unique girls, backgrounds, troop objectives and financial realities - again, your troop may approach this very differently.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hands-On Service Projects

While service is such an important part of the Girl Scout program, it's also been one of the harder pieces to incorporate into our troop.

In our community, there are no shortage of nonprofit organizations doing amazing work. But finding ones that are willing and able to effectively engage with "young helpers" is more difficult. As someone who has worked on the nonprofit side, I totally get it. Working with young volunteers can be fraught with challenges, from safety and liability issues to client confidentiality to a simple lack of age-appropriate activities.

So when I do find organizations and program that offer hands-on service opportunities, it makes me all the more appreciative. Here are a few that we've had great success with in the past, and a couple we're looking forward to doing in the future. While all of these are local to us (St. Louis, MO), I imagine similar opportunities exist in many communities.

1) Visiting residents at a retirement community or nursing home. We are fortunate enough to meet at a school that is right next to a retirement home, so this is one of the first activities we did with our Brownies. The opportunities for service here are endless,but I would recommend contacting the facility's manager or activity director first before making plans. They can help steer you in the right direction in terms of best time/day to visit, what activities are most popular, ability levels of residents, what to expect, etc.

For example, while we had initially talked about Christmas caroling at the center, the director suggested focusing on another holiday when fewer groups usually came. As a result, we made Thanksgiving table centerpieces and delivered them during a meeting, followed by singing a few songs and visiting with residents. We've also taken troops over for a Trick-or-Treating event at the center. But you certainly don't have to wait for a holiday or special occasion - most residents love to see the girls any time of year, and all the better if you make plans to visit on a regular basis.

2) Sorting/boxing food at St. Louis Area Foodbank. I imagine many food pantries will work with young volunteers, but I have to give a big shout-out to this organization. I've done shifts there with both my troop and a team at work, and found it to be a really well-run operation - and a lot of fun. You usually sign up for a 3-4 hour shift, and after a nice tour/overview, they put you to work on an assembly line of sorts. Due to the sheer volume of food they deal with, there is always plenty to do, there are jobs for every age and ability level, directions are clear and there is little downtime. And at the end, they usually tell you just how many pounds of food you helped pack and how many clients will benefit, which is a great way to connect participants with an outcome. The hardest part is finding a free shift (Saturdays go months in advance), but as I said, there are likely other organizations doing similar great work.

3) Preparing meals/snacks for the homeless clients of St. Patrick Center. In addition to providing service, this can be a great tie-in to one of the cooking or nutrition-related badges. As part of an overnight, our troop made homemade granola bars, PB&J sandwiches, bran muffins and cookies and bagged them up for the Center, which distributes them to clients during outreach and between meals. This can be a good opportunity to discuss the issue of homelessness with girls, even before they're of an age where they can directly serve at a shelter.

4) Cook a meal for the families at a Ronald McDonald House. I've done this before, but not with our troop, so it's one we're looking forward to tackling this year. Pretty straightforward - you sign up for a meal and then bring all the food to prepare on-site in the house kitchen. This is another good one for girls working on a cooking badge, and a good opportunity for a budgeting/shopping lesson.

5) Service days at Girl Scout camp. We'll be participating in a fall clean-up day at one of our Council camps in a few weeks; projects usually range from giving the lodges a thorough cleaning to painting picnic benches to trail maintenance. Even if your Council does not host a clean-up event, you can usually contact the camp ranger to find out if there are projects your troop can tackle during a visit. Or, check with your Conservation Department and local environmental organizations to find out if there are stream or park clean-ups scheduled.

What service projects have been the most meaningful for your troop?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Advice I'd Give New-Leader Me

If I could go back eight years and give a single piece of advice to that new Girl Scout leader just starting out, it would be a very simple one - take more pictures.

While I take photos regularly for my job, I'm far from shutter-happy outside of work. I'd much rather be doing something or enjoying the moment than taking photos to try to capture it. Most of the photos we have of the troop were either taken by my co-leader or hasty after-thoughts, scrambled together before we jump in the car.

But last spring, when our oldest girls in the troop graduated eighth grade (and Cadettes), I decided to put together a framed photo collage for each of their years in Scouts. Luckily, I was able to dig up enough photos, but it made me wish I had taken more over the years. It was amazing to see how much each of them had grown and matured - my co-leader and I kept remarking that we couldn't remember them ever being that little as they were back in Brownies. In going through the images, it was also great to look back at some of the things we've done over the years.

So to other leaders out there, especially just starting out - take a moment along the Girl Scout journey to snap a pic or two. Even when you're looking like a drowned rat at the end of a rainy campout, or when you swear you'll never attempt that craft project again in your lifetime (I'm looking at you - popsicle stick birdfeeders that likely fell apart at first breeze). Not so often that your girls automatically pose when they see you coming, but enough that you have something to look back on to see how far you've come.

Also, if you're looking to put together a photo collage of your own, I highly recommend Canva. There are plenty of other online tools out there that work similarly, but I use Canva for personal and professional purposes, mainly due to the fact that it's easy-to-use, free, offers a great deal of flexibility and allows you to download a high-resolution PDF/JPG, suitable for printing and framing.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Survivor-themed Camp Weekend

I'm a big fan of a theme when it comes to camping. It wasn't really necessary for the first couple of campouts, when everything was still really new. For younger girls, the process of working together to prepare three meals a day plus snacks, then clean up (all in a brand-new setting) is a learning experience in itself. Throw in a hike, a few games and maybe a craft, and you're good.

But as the girls get more experienced with camping, I think a theme can provide some focus for the weekend and make it easier to plan activities. And it's just fun.

A year ago, our troop decided on a Survivor theme for our fall campout. Admittedly, most of them have never seen the show Survivor, so they only had the vaguest sense that it involved outdoor challenges. But they're a pretty competitive bunch and enjoy learning new outdoor skills, so I thought they'd enjoy it. (And after seeing some examples online, I had been dying to plan and do one, so it may have included some subtle suggestion on my part.)

Rather than go through all the details here, here's the link to the schedule and challenge details.


Unfortunately, the original instructions I typed up for the girls for each challenge remain on my now-dead laptop, but I've hopefully provided enough details for you to type up your own.

I wish I could take credit for all the ideas, but most were cobbled together from various sources (see resource list at end), adding in tweaks that made it work better for our troop and the particular camp we had chosen.

A few things to keep in mind:
  • Our girls were 7th & 8th grade when they did this. All had been camping before, so activities were chosen with their skills and interests in mind.
  • If prep and planning is not your thing, this theme is probably not for you. Our girls selected the camp and unit, and planned all the meals, but due to the nature of the theme, all the activities were pretty much up to us as leaders to plan. 
  • We were staying in yurts in a Girl Scout camp, so had access to a picnic shelter, fire pit and latrines. 
  • As tempting as it can be on some campouts, we weren't going to vote to send any of the girls home. And while our girls love a good competition, I also wanted this to bring them closer together, so you'll see that many of the challenges are them working together to achieve reward. Certainly with a larger troop (we had 8), teams might make more sense.
  • I tried to add some touches here and there to make it more authentic, but also didn't want to spend a bunch of money on materials. For most of the challenges, I printed the instructions on the computer and then rolled them up into a scroll tied with twine. For the knot tying challenge, I placed the pieces of rope into brown paper lunch sacks and pasted a Survivor logo (shhh, don't tell the show) to the outside of the bag. For tribal council, I cut extra paper bags into pieces to look more like the parchment used on the actual show for voting. But I'm sure there are plenty more creative and inventive leaders out there who can take it to the next level (just do a quick search of Pinterest and you'll find tons of boards devoted to Survivor-themed parties.)
So, how did it go? It was a hit, and probably our most memorable (so far) camping trip as a troop. As a leader, this was also the trip where it really hit me how far they'd come and how much they'd grown. 

For example, while we had done all the learning progression for firebuilding - from building an edible fire, to laying a real one, to lighting a match, this was the first campout where they were solely responsible for firebuilding. Let's face it, even as an experienced leader, I'd had my moments of frustration in trying to get a fire lit in the wind or keep a stubborn one going. So the thought of leaving my entire weekend of food consumption in the hands of  tween girls was downright scary. But they blew us away, even lighting a one-match fire at one point (and of course, gloating about it incessantly.)

The favorite activity by far was the food challenge - it was also the one I struggled with the most in planning. They're not known for their adventurous eating, so we wanted them to stretch their palates, but also didn't want them to go home to their parents with tales of girls vomiting in the woods. So we picked the foods accordingly, and it turned out to be the perfect mix of disgusting but do-able. 

I also knew I wanted to have the tribal council experience, but without the negativity. Our solution of having the girls vote for "Best Leader," "Most Helpful," and "Best Attitude" worked great, with nearly every girl getting at least a couple votes and some good discussion. That said, we already had a pretty high level of trust and low incidence of cliques in our group, so you'll have to keep your own troop dynamics in mind when choosing activities.

Some additional resources for Survivor camp themes:
Do you use themes for your campouts? Any favorites?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Still Keeping On ...

So, um, yeah ... it's been a while. Too long. How ya been, old blog?

In the past couple of years, some things have changed. I changed jobs not once, but twice, went back to school and completed my MBA. Some things haven't changed - I'm still leading the same troop, only now they're all officially teenagers. We went on our first "real" trip (outside of camping) and are planning another one for next summer. The girls are still as fun, hilarious, intelligent, down-to-earth, inspiring - and sometimes frustrating - as ever before.

We've had some successes and failures as a troop, and each time, I thought about coming back here to write them down. Each time, I stopped myself, due to laziness, lack of time, or a sense that it wasn't all that important. As I kept seeing more and more Girl Scout Facebook groups, Council forums, Pinterest boards and online discussions spring up, I told myself that a Girl Scout blog didn't make all that much sense - there were plenty of other resources out there.

But two things led me back here:
1) I got a notification that my domain name had automatically renewed. Not the best reason for blogging, but hey, I'm cheap and if it's here, I should at least take advantage of it.
2) I got a very kind note from an unknown reader thanking me for the help she found here in leading her Brownie troop. Again, blogging for accolades is not a worthy pursuit, but if even one person finds some value in our troop's ups and downs, then it's far from time wasted.

But more importantly, I miss jotting down and reflecting on our troop activities. Whether or not anyone reads these words, I find it helpful to capture what worked (and what didn't) as a journal of how far our troop has come. And who knows, as our girls speed too quickly toward the end of their Girl Scout days, I may need these notes to run my next Girl Scout troop. :)

As they say in Girl Scouts, make new friends, but keep the old. Good to see you again.