Playing the Game

By Richard Nastasi

When youngsters enter a physical activity in the schoolyard, gymnasium or camp environment, one question seems to flood their minds… When are we going to play the game?


Here are some helpful hints to get the kids playing games and make the games aspect of their camp experience an exercise in discovery as well as a time for unbridled fun.

The key to immediate engagement in the game is simple… Play it first, teach it second. How can the children play the game without understanding the rules?

Contructive Teaching
The method that has been circulating though academic circles over the past decade is called Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU), which focuses on campers discovering and creating the appropriate rules for the games they play.

The reasoning behind this movement lies within what's called the constuctivist pedagogical methodology. Big words aside, it's a great way to introduce kids to new games and sports. According to Brooks and Brooks (1993), constructivism implies several things:

1. Posing problems of emerging relevance to learners.

2. Structuring learning around big ideas or primary concepts.

3. Seeking and valuing students (campers) point of view.

4. Adapting curriculum (the games) to address the students (campers) suppositions.

5. Assessing student (camper) learning in the concept of teaching.

This set of parameters poses difficult logistical and learning issues for camp directors and administrators. Naturally, control and safety is a large part of the planning process of a games center at camp.

While safety is always of utmost concern, giving some control to campers in the definition and scope of their games need not interfere with the primary objective.

In order to be a successful construtivist camp teacher, you must give up some of your traditional roles in the games selection process. The teacher should act as:

1. Presenter: Don't tell the children what to play, but demonstrate the potentials of the game choices (either the original or from their game history) that they select.

2. Observer: Observe the children in their play, offering comments in order for their game to continue appropriately.

3. Question-asker and problem-poser: Stimulate their game ideas with leading questions so that they can discover answers to game difficulties on their own. (Example: Teacher: So, why is everyone in front of each other's goal waiting for the ball to be kicked to them? This question might propel in to a discovery of the practicality of the off-sides rule.

4. Environment organizer: the teacher organizes a safe environment while allowing children the ability to express themselves freely.

5. Public relations coordinator: the teacher encourages fair play practices that seek group and individual outcomes for the campers.

6. Documenter of learning: The teacher mentally and physically takes notes, using journal entries to track the progress of each camper. This can be used as a resource for current and future game clarification.

7. Theory builder: The teacher makes connections between discoveries the camper makes about the game to form (suggest) tactics and strategies based on the group's interpretation. (Chaille and Britten, 1991)

In order to place the concepts in a practical light, let's take an introductory two-hour game segment of camp program using the TGFU technique. The campers are a gender mixed group of 10-12 year olds (this technique is most useful for children in grades four and up) who arrive at the athletic field…

Teacher: Okay, let's play a game.

Camper(s): What kind of game?

T: What kind do you want to play?

C: What do you mean?

T: What kind of games are there?

C: Games with two teams and goals, and the point is to score. You know, like soccer. (C's cheer)

T: Does everybody want that? Okay, go play. First, pick fair sides (mediate) boundaries that you want (within safety and logistical parameters).

After that has been accomplished (using your environmental and organizing skills)….

T: Okay, let's start. Someone kick the ball!

The game begins and the teacher observes and documents the evolution. Ten minutes into the game…

T: (After blowing a whistle after seeing all of the children bunching up and chasing the ball). Hey, everyone. Stand still where you are. What's wrong with this picture? (Silence.) Look at yourselves and the people around you. What going on?


C: We're all too close together and are getting in each other's way. It stinks.

T: What do you want to do about it?

C: Give people positions so that we have more space and have people to pass to.

T: Why is space so important?

C: Because we need a chance to run and if we kick it someone will already be there instead of us messing around like this.

T: Good job. What I would like you to do is get together with you team of each side of the field and pretend that each half is a whole field. Now create positions for the players on your team. Give each position a role and responsibility (you might discuss briefly the definition of role and responsibility if required) and come back ready to play again in a half-hour.

The teacher then observes the deliberations and poses questions to the group that will clarify decisions and point out the potential ramifications of their decisions (Q: Are you sure you want three people on the left side? What will that do?), and seek common ground among team members. The teacher might also encourage the group to try out their theories in mini-game simulations against themselves.

Coming back to full game play, the teacher allows the newfound positions to take shape. The game concludes ten minutes prior to the usual allotted time in order to gain feedback or to "debrief".

The teacher asks the campers what worked and what didn't and how they could make the game better tomorrow. The teacher is recording their concerns so that the beginning five to ten minutes of the next session will pick up on unresolved issues and begin to create solutions to improve the game even more.

This TGFU style of game play allows for several important learning outcomes (Martin, et al., 1998). First, it allows students to explore the nature of their games by allowing campers a voice in their construction.

Whether creating a new game or "re-formulating" an old one, campers will be able to take ownership of their creation. Secondly, campers will be able to explain and make sense of the rules that they create better than if they're given a set of rules at the beginning of the game sequence.

Third, campers will have the ability to be creative and expand the game at their whim. This will always keep a game fresh and popular.

Finally, campers will be able to evaluate what they like and don't like about their creations. These critical thinking skills (tremendously valued in the classroom and in business) will serve them well, not only in camping situations, but the whole year round.

Chaille, C. and Britten, L. (1991) The Young Child as Scientist. St. Louis: Mosby Martin, et. al. (1998) Science for all Children. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

For extended reading on constuctivism and games, start with:
Butler, J.I. (1997), How would Socrates Teach Games? A Constructivist Approach. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 68, 69, 42-48.

Rich Nastasi is an associate professor at Endicott College, Beverly, Mass.