Wherever I go, I am always the "game leader" ‒ from working summers at day camp, to my time as a Recreational Therapist and Ropes Course facilitator, to my volunteer work as a church youth group leader and soccer coach. The games found in this book are the "tried and true" favorites from all my years of leading active group games with various groups.
I have found that the best games have a competitive element. However, during the course of playing these games, participants can easily return to active play if they get "out." Dodge Ball is always a favorite; yet, once you are out and standing in line, it can take a very long time to return to the game. Unlike Dodge Ball, the games in this book are designed to keep things moving and to keep everyone involved as much as possible.
When first working with a group, you will often choose the games that you have the space and equipment for. If you introduce the group to a variety of games, you will find what works best, and it will become clear which games are the favorite of the group. These games will be requested each time your group meets. Once a game becomes a favorite, resist the urge to play it every time you meet. If you do keep using it, eventually the group will tire of the game. I try to play a favorite game no more than every fourth meeting time so it will still be exciting and fresh every time we play. Try out new games regularly.
If a game doesn't work or the energy seems off, then try a completely different type of game the next time you meet. Or even switch games after 10 minutes of play. I never know what the group dynamics will be for the church youth group night when I show up. Therefore I have a list of games to choose from and pick the best one based on who is there that night.
If you have a bag of foam balls, you can play a number of the games found in this book. Some games require additional small items, such as paper rolled into wands, 3x5 cards, colored markers, jump ropes, cones or bandanas. But for the most part, a bag of foam balls is the main ingredient needed.
The abilities and functioning level of your group determine which type of foam balls will work best for your population. I personally have a bag of about 25 small foam balls (4 inch size with a smooth coating) and two large foam balls (soccer ball size) to lead games with my groups. I often have groups with 30 to 45 people, and it is best to have a bunch of balls so everyone can be involved as much as possible. But a ball bag with 10 to 15 balls will work for most groups.
If you don't have all the equipment needed to play a game, you can often be creative and substitute other items. I have used 2-liter soda bottles (with the lids on tight) which had been filled with a couple inches of water, in place of cones. If a game calls for bandanas ‒ but they are only used for the purpose of capturing them ‒ I have occasionally substituted the small foam balls. By being creative, you can often find the supplies needed.
When leading games, you should always act as if you are excited about playing the game and explain it with enthusiasm. I have seen people introduce games in a boring manner that doesn't lead to good energy when the game begins. As a result, it can take a while for the game to get going.
Explain all the rules clearly and ask for questions to clarify rules. I sometimes will forget a small detail that makes a big difference in the way the game will flow. But when someone asks a really good question, this reminds me to add that detail. Never assume everyone knows all the rules to a game. Always review them in case there is one new member to the group who does not know how to play but is too embarrassed to say so.
Find the best way to talk to the group. When I am leading a group of 45 teenagers, I have to ask them to sit down. That way, they can all see me, and I can make sure they are listening. When I am leading a group of 15 third graders, I can explain it while they are standing in front of me with no problem.
The games in this book are all competitive. There has been a movement over the years to play games that are noncompetitive; however, the reality is that kids like to play games with a winner. Striving to win is what makes the game fun, and this is what makes everyone try harder. In the process, the kids get more exercise out of the game. Also, learning how to deal with losing is an important life lesson that is taught through the playing of competitive games. This lesson is lost sometimes in today's "everyone is a winner" society. It is good to learn both how to lose and how to win graciously. When entering the workforce, everyone has to be able to deal with this element of life, and games are a great way to learn these lessons early on.
There are ways to promote healthy competition without making those who lost feel like they are less valuable. First of all, don't make a big deal out of who won a game; just move on to the next game after a game has finished. Many of the games in this book can have several rounds if one team quickly wins. Sometimes I will adjust the teams or completely mix up teams after a round when it is clearly lopsided. Sometimes a game can go back and forth for a long time, and right when it is tied up is when I will call the game "over" with a tie. (Cone Knock Over or Flag Grab are good examples of games that this strategy works well with.)
Making sure everyone plays by the rules is a big part of promoting healthy competition. I have played games with some younger youth group leaders who think it is funny to cheat or do something crazy. This doesn't sit well with some players, and it often causes chaos and leads to other players thinking it is funny to cheat. Find the best ways you can to handle cheating as it occurs.
How to Handle Cheating
Hopefully you won't have to deal with cheating when you lead games. However, at times during competitive games cheating can occur. Sometimes, it is people thinking they are being funny or who are seeking attention; other times, it comes from super competitive people who will do anything to win.
It is important for a leader to always be a part of the game. The leader can participate or be on the sidelines watching to make sure everyone follows the rules. When I see someone not following the rules, I give them a playful reminder of what the rules are (sometimes they weren't listening and didn't know, sometimes they didn't think anyone was watching). Most often the person will go back to playing by the rules. In extreme cases, I will call someone over to me and ask if they understand the rules. I do this to make sure they understand I am watching and it is not OK to cheat. If cheating becomes a big problem, I will stop a game and address the group as a whole. I explain that if I see more cheating, we will have to change games. Sometimes I will hold a board game night after a night with too much cheating in the gym. This is a good opportunity to have a discussion about the importance of following the rules in everything they do in life and not just while playing a game.
I never select team captains who then pick teams by taking turns. I have many creative ways to pick teams. I will often look over the group, and if I can find a commonality that half of them have, I will use this to select teams (all those wearing shorts on one team, all those wearing pants on the other). I often use birthdays to break up the groups by naming months; if your birthday falls in those months, you are on one team and the others are on the opposite team. You can use birthday days (if your birthday falls on an odd-numbered day, you are on one team, and if on an even day, you are on the other). I will count the group off to form teams in a "1-2-1-2" manner. But I have discovered that when you count off, many people go with their friends and pretend they are on the same team as them. To handle this, I say, "If you have a friend you need to be on the same team with, then link arms and stand with them on this side. If you can be on a team with anyone, stand on this side." I then count off the groups in a "1-2-1-2" fashion (counting each pair as an individual unit) and then do the same for the individuals. This has eliminated people going to whichever team they choose. Another way to choose teams is to have grades stand up (all seventh graders stand up) and then evenly divide the group of seventh graders, then do the same with all the grades.
As you can see, there are many ways to select teams. Be creative and have fun with it but don't take too long.
Strength Differences with Ball Throwing Games
Ball throwing games are always popular, and sometimes you may find that you have members of your group with much greater strength than others. If this is an issue, you can make a rule for a specific group of players (e.g., all boys over the age of 16 have to throw left-handed or from behind a certain line). Or name the specific players who have to follow a special rule.
If I can divide up the teams in a way to balance out the strong players, I will do that too (high school boys and middle school girls versus middle school boys and high school girls, or leaders and girls versus boys). It will all depend on the make-up of your group, and there is always a way to adjust the rules to solve an unfair advantage one group may have over another.
Using softer balls is also a solution when you have strong groups of players.
Fitness through Fun
By playing games that involve moving, running, and ball throwing, participants can get exercise without even realizing it. This is the beauty of physically active games. Some of the games in this book I use for off-season conditioning with my high school soccer team. We have one "fun conditioning" activity a week, and my team has their favorite games to play. (Color Match and Picture Run are the team favorites.)
If you want to promote the use of exercise to help with mental well-being, then begin each group activity by doing a "check-in." Ask everyone how they are feeling physically and mentally. Do another "check-in" after playing the game to help people recognize how much better they usually feel after engaging in exercise.
I hope you find your favorite games and have as much fun leading and playing these games as I have over the years.