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3 Things to Avoid When Leading Games

Original article appeared here.

Three moves can help make your playtime a positive and affirming experience for middle-schoolers—you know, that age group known for being at the height of insecurity and confusion about who they are.

By “positive and affirming” I’m not suggesting that you can’t keep score or have winning and losing teams.

We try to avoid playing games in a way that could …

1. Embarrass or mock students. If we’re doing a game that could be especially messy or put a student on the spot, I let them volunteer. If they’re choosing to let others decorate their face like a frosted cookie, they’re much more likely to enjoy it and not feel humiliated by it.

2. Isolate students. A lot of games are elimination based, and this is one of the quickest ways to lose the attention of a group of middle schoolers known to man. There are ways to tweak elimination games to keep everyone involved, though. In a large enough group you may be able to draw the eliminated in to cheer on who’s remaining. In our smaller group setting, this almost never works.

But you can change the rules to make it work. For example, at the point where a student should be eliminated, you can instead give them a handicap (“OK Joey, now you have to play with your eyes closed/standing on one foot,” etc.). Or, come up with a “losers bracket” where the eliminated can keep playing.

3. Are more about competition than about fun and connecting. Keeping score is a great way to keep middle schoolers engaged in the game, but don’t make winning more important than the people who are playing. At times I’ve even seen adult leaders get consumed by the game.  

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I'm a youth leader at our local church near Orlando, Florida and on staff with Cadre Ministries. I love helping 11-to-14-year olds grow into the people God's created them to be. I hope what I'm learning encourages and helps you in your own ministry to middle schoolers.