Making Beads Work in Every Situation...

I love working with beads... they are quite the motivator with kids, they are generally cheap and they can be displayed in many different ways. In order to use beads, though, whether at camp or functions such as Field Day, a system needs to be established...

The Economy of Beads

So you want to use beads at your camp / school / after school / Field Day / whatever. Great! Why would anyone need beads?

  1. They are a great way to chronicle a kid's journey through your program.
  2. They are a cheap and easy reward.
  3. They are a positive motivation.
  4. They can be traded.
  5. They can be displayed easily (AKA Camp Bling).
  6. They are a take-away that *could* last forever (as long as the child is concerned).
  7. They are unique.
There are more, but you get the idea. Beads are far better than raffle tickets or other motivation strategies because they can have value in the eyes of the child - nostalgic value that translates into positive memories.

The key to any reward structure such as beads is aligning all of the rules about distribution with those that control the beads.

For instance, have you ever had a raffle ticket program that broke down because of an unbalanced structure? I remember watching kids flock to a certain handful of Penny Carnival events and avoid others - not because the content of the game, but because they know where they can get the most tickets. Sometimes, if older campers were giving out tickets, the value would fluctuate even more, because they could overwhelm the system with too many or too few - both situations that would break down the appeal of the reward.

What is the most common child phrase? "That's not fair!"

Are they focused on being treated fairly? Yes! And that's never more apparent when one child gets 200 tickets and the other one only gets 5. REALLY. We're not here to favor one skill over another, we're here to make sure each child leaves with positive memories that they take with them throughout life...

In other words: we want each child to come out on top, like they won... like they have something special that no one else has!

Wow, that's a really tough trick, isn't it? Not entirely. Perception is the key to making a reward stucture that works with everyone.

Here are the basics when working with beads:


First of all, you need to have a good way of displaying the beads. Imagine that at the end of the day / week / session each camper should have 20 beads. If that's the case, what is the best way for them to show off what they have for everyone else. We had the campers make totems, from which the beads hung. At the end of the day, we collected the totems because in many cases (ALL CASES) no one would remember to bring them back. Also, this prevents the sort of corruption that *could* possibly happen at home (I'll talk about corruption later).

Things to thing about when displaying the beads:

Everyone wants to customize their totem / object...

Boys may want to choose something different than girls. Boys will resist anything that looks like jewelry.

Putting beads at the end of a long string seems like a good idea, but can easily turn into a weapon... and just as easily lose ALL the beads when a careless kid swings them around.

Beads decorate backpacks really well and don't seem to both boys (because they see it as a badge of honor).

Approach the Arts & Crafts / Art person at camp / school and ask them to come up with a good solution.

Remember, every time a kid receives a bead, they will want to add it to their bling!!!


All of the beads have value. The value depends on how many other kids have that same bead. Let's say that at the end of the experience, a child has 20 beads. 10 - 15 of the beads can be common, every day beads... the rest should be varying levels of rarity. Each kid should think they have a bead that no one else has.

Value is achieved by the language the beads are described with, how the beads are distributed, what the beads are distributed for and how many beads are distributed.

I broke it down like this:

Colored pony beads are the most common and probably the cheapest. These would be given for attendance - both for coming in that day for camp / etc and for attending an activity. The colors should reflect the area...

For instance, the Nature beads were green. That specialist just had access to Nature beads and they gave them to every camper who came to the area. Since attendance was mandatory, this made the beads a breadcrumb trail of the camper's day.

The colors should be given out to the activity heads and then whatever main solid colors are left are for general attendance. This is valuable because now the kids have bulk and everyone has *something*.

As far as the kids are concerned, everyone in their group will have the same exact number of these of the same color (theoretically). We refer to these as "Attendance Beads" but they really are "Common Beads." They are not given out for any other reason. Once a bead type is given out for *one* reason to a large enough group, that reward has to be consistent.

Rare beads are where beads can be a big motivator. I suggest buying bulk beads off of eBay to try to get some really unique items. Otherwise, go through your local craft depot and pick up as many random assortments as possible.

Before you begin the event / season, the beads need to be sorted out. The rare beads are really determined based on the number you (as the event runner) has and the number of kids. If you can give one bead to all of the kids *once*, then that bead is a level-1 rare. Terminology, such as "Level-1" can be applied to rare beads in front of kids so they feel there is legitimacy behind the assessment.

"Level-1" beads are perfect for clean-ups or anything that you want everyone to do. "If each group can fill 3 bags of garbage, everyone at camp gets a rare bead!

[This is where Blogger cut out some information!]


Whenever setting up something of value, corruption (AKA cheating) must be considered. Keeping the totems at camp until the kids leave means that *if* they have beads at home, they can't be added... This generally doesn't happen because of peer pressure. The more the kids want the beads, the more they will show them off to others. If everyone knows what everyone has, adding unearned beads is difficult and too risky for most children.

Trading beads or stealing beads is also a consideration. Do you want to allow trading? Yes and no. I wouldn't encourage general trading of beads just because a child may start trading other items (sandwiches, Pokemon cards, video games) matching the perceived value of the beads. Trading can occur with administration (HONESTY beads) or between campers during a trade-specific activity that doesn't involve common beads.

Some campers will trade an ultra-rare for another ultra-rare based on aesthetics and I think that is fine as long as it's not disruptive.


I suppose I could write a book about this, if I get into enough detail! I hope that I gave some relevant ideas that help and I am totally willing to share more specific information as needed - or give location-specific advice. Let me know in the comments or email (vigeant@gmail.com).

Hope your Summer planning is going well!!!


heroworkshop said...

That was a great description - really well done. This should go out to every camp.

Emily said...

interesting idea :)i think more camps should encourage this sort of thing for the kids to do throughout camp..

i'm flying out from london, england to work at a camp for the first time this summer, i cant wait!
lots of great new ideas, and things that reminded me of songs from my camp experiences here etc from your blog and website