Do Games Still Work? The 7 Deadly Sins of Game Leading
By Jonathan McKee Posted on October 08 2009
"Okay everyone, now it's time to play games!" An audible groan resounds through the youth room. Students have flashbacks of their 3rd grade birthday party in Grandma's back yard. But we've come a long way from "Pin the tail on the Donkey," haven't we?
Games and activities aren't a thing of the past. Ministries across the nation are using cutting edge games and programming to attract students, connect them, and make 'em come back for more. How can we use crowdbreakers, mixers, games or activities to bring students in . . . NOT send them running for the door!
Well, if you're going to mess up- you might as well mess up bad! Do any of "THE SEVEN" and you can chase students away rather than bring them in.
Deadly Sin Number One
Tell the crowd that you're going to play a game!
The best way to ruin a game is to tell kids that you're going to play one! Youth groups across the nation consistently use this pathetic transition: "Okay, we're going to play a mixer now!" But does the average junior higher off the street know what a mixer is? Yeah! It's the thing you use to stir cake mix!
In the early '90s I started a campus outreach for a group of unchurched junior high students. The first week about 12 of them showed up to my house for free root beer floats. They didn't know what was going on—all they knew is that their friend told them to come to this fun thing with free root beer floats! They weren't expecting games; most unchurched students aren't used to playing them.
When they got there I told them, "Hey, thanks for coming. Tonight we're going to have free root beer floats! Who thinks they can drink more than two? How about three? Four? All right, we're going to have the floats in a minute, but first . . . get into two lines. Now I want to see which line has the best reflexes."
Notice what I did. I didn't break rule number one of The Seven. I didn't tell them we were going to play a game. For this group it was crucial. These are the kinds of kids that if you said, "Come on in! We're going to play some games," they would have thought I was the clown that Mom rented for their tenth birthday party.
Before the kids knew it they were playing the game. As a matter of fact, they forgot all about the floats and were focused on trying to beat the other team.
When starting a game, just start doing it. For example: "Hey, before we get started today I want everyone on this side of the room to scoot one foot that way while my staff runs this rope between you."
My friend Phil ran a ministry that reached a tough group of students. So did my friend Lee. Phil always complained that he had trouble finding stuff to do: "My kids don't like games!" He spent two frustrating years programming his weekly outreach without any games at all. However, Lee worked with a much tougher group and he played games all the time. The difference was he never told them they were going to play one. He would just pull out a raw fish, a pillow and a blindfold and say, "I need a volunteer!" I've never seen so many kids with nothing in common have so much fun together. I'd always hear Lee's kids say, "Man, Lee always gets us to do the craziest stuff!"
Just start the game—you don't need permission. Ten minutes later kids will be looking at each other saying, "Hey, we're playing games!"
Deadly Sin Number Two
That's right—if you really want to chase students away, don't be prepared! Just whip up a game a few minutes before a program and figure out what you need later.
The truth is, time is always crucial because attention spans are short. In this fast-food-microwave-quick-cut-MTV-Minute-Rice-Taco-Bell-drive-thru generation, kids are used to having what they want stimulating their eyes, ears and mouth every second. If you're going to lead a game that requires everyone to have a balloon and piece of string, make sure you have multiple staff members ready to hand out balloons. Also have the strings precut and several staff members ready to hand them out.
I once witnessed an intern who thought that he didn't need to plan ahead for his campus outreach program. He would look up a few games on my website a half hour before his program and pick up the supplies on the way to the meeting. Every week he was late because he never found what he needed at a single store and so had to make multiple stops. Even if he did buy everything, he wouldn't have it laid out, prepared and ready to go.
I'll never forget the time that he chose a game that required two marshmallows with a piece of string tied around them. He brought two kids up front and then ran to his grocery bag to pull out a bag of unopened marshmallows and a new roll of string. He tore open the marshmallows and handed each of the kids one. Then he tried to open the string. At first he couldn't get the plastic off. Finally, when he managed to get the covering off, he discovered that he didn't have anything to cut the string with.
Within a minute the kids weren't paying attention. They were talking with each other, throwing things and generally beginning to look for trouble. Meanwhile, my intern started biting the string, pulling it and trying everything he could to cut it. He finally asked if anyone in the audience had something to cut string with. By this time several other staff members had come up front to try to help him. After the string was cut, while he and the staff were trying to tie the string to the marshmallows, a fight broke out in the bleachers.
I don't think they ever actually played the game that day. They did have to write an incident report to the vice principal, however, explaining why there was a fight at this campus outreach event.
Have everything ready. And if you've never done a particular game before, test it! You can test it on your staff at a staff meeting or on a small group of leadership students that are kind and forgiving (let me know if you meet any!). So many times I thought I was the Game Master, and all of a sudden I'm coming up short in front of a bunch of kids with a game that doesn't work. Not a pretty sight. Test it! Test it! Test it!
Deadly Sin Number Three
Use chaperones, not youth workers.
If you want to mess up great opportunities for your staff, don't have them playing the games with the kids. Just have them stand around the edges with their arms crossed yelling out, "Stop that!" or "You quiet down!" every once in awhile. This not only damages the enthusiasm and energy in your group, but it is also a disservice to your students and staff. Through the years, staff and students playing together has proven to be a major relationship builder.
Hopefully your staff members are trained to hang out with kids, not merely to chaperone. Mere chaperones are no fun, and most students don't want a relationship with one. Staff members can, and should, be so much more than that. They should be participating purposefully in all your events and hanging out with kids any chance they get. They should laugh with them, talk with them, cry with them—whatever it takes. Game time is the perfect opportunity for the staff to break the ice with students.
I love it when one of my volunteers runs games and allows me a chance to play! Once I played a game where we were divided into two teams and were given Q-tips and straws. Several people on each team had to balance paper cups on the tops of their heads while the rest of the team protected them while attacking the other teams. When my staff guy said "Go," I got a bunch of the junior high guys and told them we should all attack a girl named Tonya on the other team. All of us bombarded her with Q-tips until her cup finally fell off her head. Students reminded me for years about the time we annihilated Tonya with Q-tips. Fun memories make lasting impressions.
Games are great times to bond with students. Don't miss this opportunity!
Deadly Sin Number Four
Explain the game for more than 30 seconds.
As we all know, time and attention spans are short. Part of being prepared for a game is knowing how to explain it quickly. Give the basics—maybe with a visual example—and jump straight into "Ready, set, go!" Giving highly detailed explanations will only serve to confuse or bore kids.
Don't be afraid to start a game even when some are still confused. Staff members can help push these people along once you start.
Deadly Sin Number Five
Take tons of time to divide teams.
Same principle as number four: If you spend all kinds of time dividing teams, students will lose interest before the game's even started. Then you have to crawl out of a hole! Have a plan to divide teams quickly. Always try to use natural divisions: grade levels, gender, half of the room, etc. Only number off as a last resort!
We used to play good ol' fashioned dodgeball at youth group. At first we tried to number students off, making the teams completely even. We'd get halfway through numbering them and some students were switching, even leaving the line up. Many lost interest before the game began. I finally learned to say, "Seventh graders over here and eighth graders over there!" If there were way more eighth graders than seventh, I would yell, "All staff play with the seventh graders." This always upped the level of competition.
Whatever you do, have a plan. Do it swiftly and clearly. The speed with which you do it may be more important than having the exact number on each team.
Deadly Sin Number Six
Let any volunteer lead games.
As you can see from the first five sins of game leading, not every staff member is cut out to be the up-front guy or gal. The game leader must be trained in dynamic, enthusiastic communication. He or she must be equipped with resources and given an opportunity to lead a game in a staff meeting or in an occasional youth group. If you're like me, you value your staff as much as you value your life. Don't tie meat around the necks of your volunteers and then throw them to the lions. Teach them. Show them. Give them a chance to rehearse and evaluate.
We can be honest. Some people just aren't gifted at being up front. Don't use these people to lead games. A key to a successful program is putting staff in roles in which they are gifted and feel comfortable. This isn't harsh—this is good leadership. If you help volunteers find their gifts and give them the opportunity to use them, you'll have a happier—and more effective—staff team.
By the way, if something goes wrong, play it off. Games will go sour—it's a fact. When they do, use the opportunity to make fun of it. If a game goes wrong and the leader is funny about it, kids will still have a good time and relationships will still be strengthened—after all, that's the point, right?
Deadly Sin Number Seven
Make sure the audience can't see the action.
The last way to guarantee messing up your game plan is to make sure that the audience can't see what's happening. This is most common with up-front games like the ones described in chapter 2. These are games where students are up front doing something while the audience participates by cheering them on. You can guarantee that these kinds of games will be a dud when the audience can't see the action.
"Of course!" you say. But I can't tell you how many times I have seen some cool crowd breaker or up-front game in which a kid is getting doused with syrup or a girl is about to suck a jelly bean out of some Jell-O and I couldn't see because the game leader was standing right in the way! If you're leading a game, step aside! Remember, as fun as it is for the game leader to watch, that's not the reason the game is being played. Let the audience see.
Sometimes the room you are meeting in isn't very up-front-game compatible. A common setting for this occurrence is when you have a room where the audience is on the same physical level as the onstage action. Very often when the action starts taking place, the front row will stand up to see better, and then everyone else can't see. Here are a few suggestions to improve the view for your audience:
- Use a makeshift stage. If you don't have one, make one. If you can't make one, then stand people up, put them on chairs or have them lie on tables instead of the ground. Do what it takes so everyone can see.
- Keep everyone seated. If you violate the first of these points and have someone lie on the ground to have eggs dropped in his mouth, it will be hard to keep people in the audience from standing. So follow the first suggestion and your audience will be more likely to listen to you when you ask them to stay seated.
- Use a video feed. Videotape the action up front and project it to a big screen that everyone can see. This will please most crowds.
If you lose the audience during games, you may create a momentum that loses 'em for the whole night. The participation of the whole group is crucial. Utilize staff members to keep energy high and the audience seated!
Excerpted from Jonathan McKee's new book The Top 12 Resources Youth Workers Want (Gospel Light).
Copyright 2002 Gospel Light, Ventura, CA 93003. Used by permission.