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A Guide to Youth Group Games

A Guide to Youth Group Games

I love youth group games, because nothing shares God's love better than getting whacked in the face with a pool noodle; however, there is an art to conducting a truly great youth group game. You have to find the perfect balance between an athletic event and brain-teaser while generating enough entertainment value to ensure that you're keeping everybody's attention. Time is also critical; even a good game can be ruined if it drags on. It can't be too complicated either; your explanation of the game should never last longer than the game itself.

That may seem like a lot of things to remember, but when you stumble upon a game that meets all of the above criteria, the result is incredible. You will witness a gathering of teenagers lose all sense of self-respect and maturity and start playing with no regard for their reputation or well-being. They will spin around with their head on the baseball bat five times and dizzily traverse kiddie pools filled with mud in order to get the balloon through hula-hoop before time runs out, even if it means a sprained ankle, terrible carpet burn, and a black eye.

In an attempt to help out youth leaders everywhere, I've labeled five main categories of youth group games along with some pros and cons. Please feel free to print this article out so you can crumple it up and turn it into some form of projectile for teenagers to launch at each other. 

Disgusting & Dangerous Games

I've joined disgusting and dangerous games into a single category because they share a similar trait: I can't stand them. I've seen youth group games that make it seem like getting a concussion is the goal and I've seen others with descriptions that have turned my stomach. At some point, drinking a soda/pickle/mustard/banana/mushroom milkshake becomes more gross than funny (usually around the time vomit enters the picture). Games should  fun and the moment you begin to endanger or embarrass somebody, fun goes out the window.

I once held an eating relay where one of the competitors from each team had to eat a whole habanero pepper. The task fell to a male youth leader and a female 10th-grader. By the end, they both were crying and one of them almost threw up. I felt absolutely terrible and tried to make up for it by eating one of the peppers myself. After spending 5 minutes dry heaving in the bathroom, I decided I would never again make students do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.

Here are five signs that your games might be too disgusting or dangerous:

  1. You have a designated "barf" can.
  2. You notice a disturbing trend in what you call your games (The Mega-Slide of Death, Death Ball, Musical Death Chairs).
  3. You have a volunteer standing by with 9-1-1 already punched into their phone.
  4. Your game participants are known as victims instead of volunteers.
  5. You have to get your games approved by the church's insurance company.

Messy Games

There is a fine line between a messy and disgusting game. Disgusting games almost always exclude and detract, but used correctly, a messy game can be memorable and exciting. I once made youth go on a scavenger hunt to find hidden items ... in trash cans ... that were full of trash. Not just office trash either. This was the good stuff: cooked pasta, wet newspaper and coffee grounds. This was done in teams, so those who were too grossed out weren't forced to participate (I've found that nearly every group has a few youth who are more than willing to go the distance when it comes to making a mess). The game also had a point about finding worth in something we think is worthless. Those few details made the exercise messy instead of disgusting and it stuck with teens long after that gathering.

The one major downside to messy games is that they're messy. In my first few months as a full-time, paid youth leader, I held a messy game night for middle school students. One of the games we did required the youth to dig marbles out of bowls of Jello with their feet. Of course, considering the messy nature of the game, I made sure there were large tarps underneath the Jello bowls. But I missed one very important detail: this was part of a relay game. The participants had to run back to their team after coating their feet in red and green Jello. The team that was standing on the other end of the carpeted gymnasium. Red. Green. Jello. Carpet. That "messy game" night very quickly turned into "find a carpet cleaner and a lot of paper towels before I get fired" night. So one question to ask yourself before playing a messy game: Are the 5 minutes of entertainment worth the 30 minutes of clean up? While you're at it, you might want to make sure all the church's trustees are up to date on the blood pressure medication.

Overly Complicated Games

I once played a variant of kickball with my youth group where you had to choose three items from a bucket of sports equipment (i.e. a kickball, a frisbee, and a basketball). You then had to launch the three items into the field of play. After launching the third item, you began running the bases in whichever direction you chose (1st to 3rd or 3rd to 1st). You had to round the bases twice to score and you were able to keep running until all three items were returned to the bucket. An out was charged for each throw item that was caught and you could also be tagged out. And there were 10 outs in an inning. Sound confusing? It was. The score after the first inning was 24-19. I was sure I had missed a critical rule somewhere. At some point I started making up new rules up just to speed things up. I was getting looks that said, “I'd rather be taking the SAT right now.” Needless to say, I never played that game again.

The biggest determining factor in a more complex game is the learning curve. Is the game easier to understand once you start playing or does the confusion simply result in continued chaos? It also helps if you aren't the only person present who understands the game. Take sometime before introducing the game to the whole group to explain it to a handful of leaders and students so that they can answer questions too. If your explanation of the rules is going to last longer than the game itself, you might want to reconsider.

Simple & Addicting Games

Often times the simplest games become the most legendary in youth groups. I think that happens for several reasons:

First, They are easy to learn and easy to teach. I remember one summer, a game called "Hiyah" became all the rage in my youth group. Basically, we stood in a circle and yelled loudly as we karate chopped the air. It took less than a minute to learn yet we spent hours playing it.

Second, they can be played anywhere. The best games don't require a large space or special equipment. One great game that I learned from another youth leader requires only a half-filled water bottle. It's called the Bottle Flip game and it's astonishingly simple. You sit in a circle and try to toss the water bottle and have it land standing up. The only rule is that you can only use one hand to throw it and the bottle has to flip around (you can't just drop it). I've literally seen youth become more enthusiastic about bottle flipping than a game winning touchdown from their favorite team in the Superbowl.

Third, they aren't exclusive. Most of these games don't require a specific ability. Anybody can join in and have a chance to win. There's nothing wrong with athletic or strategic games, but groups tend to embrace games that are inclusive.

What are some memorable games that you've played with your youth group? Please share in the comments!

Publication date: May 18, 2012