Get In The Game

Sports hour can be the most dreaded hour of daycare or the most delightful. For five years, I have facilitated a sports program at Camp Med, a licensed daycare program sponsored by the City of South Pasadena, Calif. That’s around 500 sports hours. Generally, about 30 children ages 5-11 participate, although this number can go as low as 10 and as high as 60.

Over the years, children have become very engaged in sports hour as teamwork and sportsmanship have increased. For children and program facilitators, there are three basic dynamics that help make sports hour a happy one:


During sports hour, participate in the game while one other counselor observes it. Applaud the kids for good effort, plays and sportsmanship. The most anticipated praise, however, is given during the post-game show. After the game, the observing counselor becomes the storyteller, providing post-game analysis on how every player did something well. The praise is not generic, but specific to each child.

After the sports recap, give verbal awards for best sportsmanship, play of the game, most improved player, courageous player, team leader, MVP, best young player, whatever seems appropriate for the game. An award can even be given for most fun player, someone who noticeably brought a lot of joy and creativity onto the field. When kids recognize an award will be given for conduct, their behaviors subtly become more attuned to becoming better sportsmen.

These awards are not focused on winning, rather on core values and on playing the game in a focused, constructive manner. In addition, kids don’t get caught up so much on who wins and who loses, but they do anticipate the awards show. For most, receiving approval is more important than winning. It is like a food that nurtures their spirit. Reinforcement allows all kids to experience the positive self-esteem that comes with sports.


Kids give their full effort when something is enjoyable. The most entertaining events are games that have some action, where there is not much sitting or standing around, like soccer, street hockey (with plastic sticks and a Wiffle ball) and Capture the Ball (see box).

Participating with kids also will stimulate interest. Seinfeld fans may remember the episode where Kramer joins a children’s karate class and gleefully dominates them. Although it may seem absurd, there is an upside to this. Children will learn to model good behavior, such as passing and cooperating with teammates. And for the younger kids, simply kicking and throwing the ball higher than they are initially able to catch gives them something to strive for. Kids enjoy competing against adults. The delight of a child who performs better than an elder is amazing to watch.


One way to measure the success of an event is feedback from the kids. If they are given a say in the activity of the day, there is an unusual amount of cooperation. Intuitively, kids know on any given day what is the best sport to play.

Listening is another major element of empowerment. Often, children see things clearly and can offer great pointers. It can be healing as well. As kids develop their voices, it is affirming to have an adult who listens to them.

Kids do particularly well if they are given jobs. Have them set up the field. Designate someone to say, “Ready, set, go.” Let the kids determine whose turn it is to kick the ball and to manage their own teams.

Since this is for their learning and experience, it’s fine if they don’t do things perfectly. What’s important is they are given the opportunity to think on their own.

Sometimes a child may be given a specific job in the context of the sport and thrives on it. One child who had consistently resisted sports hour was assigned (in soccer and hockey) to play in the left corner of the opponent’s goal. Although she was not particularly fast, she was strong. She quickly became comfortable playing the position and won possession of many of the loose balls in the corner. Before long she began scoring goals, often from remarkable angles. And then a pattern emerged that no one anticipated--in the corner of the field, her determination, craftiness and self-confidence blossomed. In close games, she started scoring an unprecedented number (30-40%) of game-winning goals.

Each activity may not always work out perfectly, but sending a message that sports are fun will strike a chord with children at an early age, and the association hopefully will serve them for the rest of their lives.

So when kids run onto the grassy field with delight and zany abandon, we know that we have prepared a good place for them.

Readers are invited to contact the author at

Lony Ruhmann is a career counselor from South Pasadena, California, with an MBA from the University Of Michigan. He also works as a ticket manager for the Olympics.

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Favorite Camp Game: Capture the Ball

Similar to Capture the Flag, this game requires a player to take the ball over the line and score a point. There is a jail as well.

The difference is a safety zone around the ball. Once a player lands in the safety zone, he or she is safe. In Capture the Flag, only the top athletes are able to both capture the flag and bring it back over the line. With the safety zone, more children are able to participate.

The other difference is the ball can be thrown, and if a teammate catches or brings the ball over the line, that team scores. Many kids in the safety zone decide to throw the ball, which changes the game to one of greater teamwork, as opposed to one where the fastest athletes dominate. It is particularly successful because the younger kids participate as much as the older ones.


Use softer balls that don’t hurt kids. Soccer balls can hit kids in the face and make them cry during the game. Switch to a larger, more rubbery ball (a Tachikara ball). It dramatically cuts down on injuries. An additional upside is that since the ball is bigger, smaller kids are now able to kick it better and participate more.

Bryan BuchkoComment