In formally structured times, troubles come in ones and twos: Greg and Richard are fooling around in the homework group, Margie wouldn't go to the aerobics class she begged to join. But in informal and unstructured times, the troubles can come in bunches: the kids are rough-housing in the lounge; the boys are ganging up on the girls in the pool. The informal and "free" times are as essential as structured times — but how can we keep these beneficial?
Check your groupings
Everyone off doing their own thing anywhere can lead to an out-of-control situation. Little kids (who deserve protection) can be at the mercy of the older ones. Your program schedule can ensure that different age groups are free at different times. Some social engineering is sometimes necessary — to create useful groups or to pull a disruptive member from a group which would function better without him. Without snooping, child care workers can be aware of groups' activities, and spot those likely to become over-boisterous or destructive.
Be aware of brewing situations
Child care workers are most distressed when situations have got out of hand, when romping has ended in breakages or arguments have become fights. We don't have to wait for disasters to deal with them; we can head them off at the pass, and we remain responsible for intervening when sensible, to maintain realistic boundaries. "Let's put a paper down here for you to paint on", "Let's move this game out into the yard where things won't get broken" or "Let's see if we can settle this argument before we get into a boxing match".
Have a repertoire of things to do
Bored kids easily become rowdy and destructive. Your campus should have a number of features to draw and challenge youngsters: everything from a football, a rope swing, a basketball net and a tennis wall outside, to a computer, dart-board, library or workshop inside. The more of these attractions there are, the more occupied and the smaller your groups will be.
Use free time observations for your leaning
During free time kids are living in a 'real life' situation, trying out new ideas, roles and behaviors in the wider group. How they manage (or mismanage) their free time, their choice of activities and their getting along with others, tells you something about their resources and development — and therefore something about what you still need to teach.
Never replace structured group activities
It is not enough to lament poor group behavior or inadequate personal skills on the part of children. Structured groups are your classroom for teaching children to manage their unstructured times. You retain your initiative as a teacher when you involve youngsters in group activities: you model healthy participation, creativity and sportsmanship; you allow children to share achievement and deal with losing. Whether in a pick-up swimming gala, a table-tennis league or a building project, children learn by doing.
Remember Fritz Redl's warning that if we offer the kids an empty program, they will soon fill it up with their own stuff — and then they are calling the shots, not us.