Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Program: Spy Academy

Well, it's been summer here in Texas for a lot longer than in most places, but now officially summer reading has started at both my jobs. In my position of Empress of All Things Tween (I think I keep changing my title slightly), I'm providing weekly programming for kids going into grades 4 through 6 in the fall. Unfortunately, my library has a social media policy, so I'm not allowed to tell you its name or, more importantly, share any pictures from my program. But I can still tell you what we did - maybe you'll find some inspiration!

I decided that for summer it would be easier to have my programs set up in stations that the kids could migrate to and from at their own pace (in the past, my programs have been much more structured, with everyone doing the same thing at the same time). I hoped that this would make it easier on me and my teen volunteers (I have 9 assigned to help me every week). This seemed like an especially good idea because my boss wanted me to offer the same program back to back, i.e. once at 3:00 p.m. and again at 4:00 p.m. I didn't build in any recovery time between the two sessions, so this station structure seemed ideal.

The Texas Summer Reading Club there is Get a Clue! @ Your Library and I wanted to try to fit most, if not all, of my programs into the theme (you can judge whether or not I was successful at the end of the summer). So, for the first week, I decided on spies and hosted a Spy Academy, designed to train future secret agents for a lifetime of covert ops. The program took place in two different rooms and you'll see why in a minute.

In the main program room, I had four stations set up: secret messages, disguises, super spy trading cards, and target practice. I also had a table set up near the door with packets of information that I created and all our relevant spying books for kids to check out (so far, they never seem to actually get checked out and I'm not sure why). Let me explain each of the different stations for you.

Secret messages: basically what it sounds like. I made a mixture of baking soda and water and the kids used Q-tips to write secret messages on half-sheets of paper. After their messages dried, they painted over them with grape juice and all was revealed. I also had some information on the table about other kinds of invisible inks (like lemon juice and onion juice). This was probably the least popular station of the program. I had originally planned to have rubber band messages, too, but couldn't find rubber bands in the right size in time.

Disguises: here, kids were encouraged to start building their own disguise kits. I put out plain paper bags for them to store their goodies in. In the months before the program, I had asked my co-workers (and so had my mom) to donate old sunglasses/eyeglasses. I ended up with over 80 pairs (I had limited registration for the program to 80 kids, so perfect amount). Kids could try on different styles and then choose the pair they thought suited their disguise. I also had fake mustaches. I made these out of stiffened felt, tracing patterns I found for free throughout the interwebs. I hot-glued each mustache to a long, plain wooden craft stick (I didn't want to mess around with spirit gum or anything sticky to attach the mustaches directly to skin). Once again, kids could try out different styles (I think I had seven different kinds of 'staches) and then choose the one they liked best. I also set out paper binoculars that we had left over from Lemony Snicket party supplies. The kids seemed to like this station, but I think a lot of them were confused. I had a number of kids coming up and asking if they were allowed to take things home. I hadn't made a sign for this table, figuring it was self-explanatory (I thought the bags for loot would give enough indication), but I guess I should have been clearer. My volunteers managed to capture some kids trying on their disguises on film.

Super spy trading cards: this is another idea I found in various places on the Internet and adapted for my program. The trading cards were doubled-sided. On the front, there was space for them to attach a picture of themselves (if I had a Polaroid or something, I would have liked to do this for them, too), their code name, their cover story, and their super spy skill. Code names were created randomly: I had two baskets filled with slips of paper; adjectives were in one, nouns in the other. The kids drew a slip from each basket and voila! Code name created. Code names were to be used by other secret agents to keep true identities secret. Cover stories/legends were the believable new identities created for introducing themselves to strangers. First names were chosen based on the first letter of their actual name (I tried to use unisex names so kids wouldn't have problems if they got a "wrong" gendered name); last names were found using the date of the month they were born (like the 16th for example). I used last names of characters from famous children's books, perhaps in vain hope that some astute child would recognize this but ultimately for my own amusement. They then had to fill in background information for this cover - where they came from, their hobbies, pets, etc. Super spy skills could be anything they could think of. The back side of the card contained information about the use of the code name and acknowledgement of their completing the training, as well as a place for their fingerprint (the only means of true positive identification should the card fall into the wrong hands). I was surprised by how much they seemed to enjoy this station and a little disappointed because I didn't really get to hear any of the things they came up with. There was some confusion about the difference between code names and cover stories, which I expected, but my volunteers helped explain very nicely. For the curious, my code name is The Atlantic Viking and my cover is Harper Watson, a local community theater actress from small-town Indiana with a pet cockatoo. My super spy skill is lying.

Target practice: less than a week before my program, I started freaking out about not having enough to do in the main room while groups of kids were occupied in the second part of the program. I had found (on Pinterest) a tutorial for creating marshmallow shooters out of PVC pipe and toyed around with the idea of using this in a program. Of course, there was no way I could afford to make shooters for 80 kids on a library budget, so I nixed the idea. But when I reached my panicking point, I came back to it and found a much-cheaper alternative: marshmallow poppers. I think I found them on Martha Stewart's magazine's website, but they can probably be found a few different places. Here's how I made them. I cut the bottom from a small paper cup, as close to the edge as possible. Then I tied off uninflated balloons and cut them roughly in half (through the bulb of the balloon). I stretched the open end over the bottom of the cup and used packing tape to secure it in place (duct tape probably would have worked even better). I ended up using both halves of the balloon and found they worked equally well, though the end without the knot was obviously a bit harder to grasp. Then you simply load a mini-marshmallow into the cup, aim and fire! The kids were supposed to be aiming for a bowl maybe five feet from the practice line, but of course marshmallows ended up everywhere. I did have to remind some children that they were not to aim at anyone else and they should only be using one marshmallow at a time. Unsurprisingly, they loved this; it was probably the second most popular activity.

The most popular activity is what awaited them in the second room of the program (where I had an additional staff member and two volunteers stationed): a laser obstacle course. Now, I didn't have real lasers - I can't imagine that would be feasible or legal for a library program. What I did have was a good-sized meeting room criss-crossed by yarn, attached to the walls with straight pins (the meeting room has fabric covered walls). The kids entered the room on one side and at the other side, past the spider web of yarn, sat a bowl of chocolate and another filled with disappearing ink. The kids had to navigate their way through the yarn, retrieve a prize (they could choose either one piece of chocolate or one bottle of ink) and then make their way back through the yarn to the room's entrance. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see too many of them actually navigating the course - I spent the majority of my time in the main program room as well as ferrying groups of children back and forth between the two rooms. But, from what I heard, the kids had tons of fun with the obstacle course and no one hurt themselves and the course managed not to collapse while they were in it, so it was a success.

All in all, I think the kids had a lot of fun and the program ran mostly smoothly. I'm a little worried having done this as the first program with a big exciting element - I hope the kids who come to my next program aren't disappointed by its more cerebral activities. I'll let you know how it goes!

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