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Playing it safe: risk management for games play.

Capture the flag, softball, wheelbarrow races, kick the can, dodge ball... these games might bring back fond memories of the fun we had playing games together at camp. Or they might bring back nightmares of time spent in emergency rooms or filling out accident reports for campers or staff who sprained wrists, ankles, and fingers or broke noses while playing games at camp.

By taking the time to think about the players, the game, and the environment in which games are played, we can make games play at camp a safer, more successful, and more enjoyable experience for everyone.

The players

Developmental level and physical condition

Do campers have the physical abilities necessary to play the game? Many junior high and very young campers have poor body control and may require more room for stopping and changing direction. They are at greater risk for collisions with objects, walls, and each other if they are not given sufficient play space. Campers are traveling at a safe speed if they can stop and change directions without falling and if they can run without bumping into others (Graham, Holt, & Parker, 1993).

Younger children have slower reaction times and their tracking skills are not fully developed. They may have difficulty getting out of the way of or successfully intercepting rapidly moving objects such as baseballs, softballs, and tennis balls.

Many children do not have enough upper body strength to properly support their body weight. This increases their risk of neck injury in activities such as wheelbarrow races and relays that include forward and backward rolls. A good match between the developmental level, the physical condition of the players, and the requirements of the game is key to both safety and success in games play.

Size of the players

Games that involve supporting the body weight of others can cause injury. Games that have the potential for physical contact or mis-matches in size can also be dangerous. The chance of injury is much greater if two players who are unevenly matched in body size collide. The same is true if smaller players are called on to support the body weight of larger players. Mismatches are more likely to happen when players' ages vary widely (counselors playing with very young campers), or when there is a coed group. To prevent injuries, match players with others of the same size whenever possible. When this is not possible, make sure that the larger or heavier people support the lighter and smaller campers.

Dress and accessories

Do the campers' clothes provide freedom of movement, good traction, and unhindered vision? All players should wear footwear that protects their feet and prevents slipping on the playing surface. Very few surfaces are safe for barefooted play. Campers should not be permitted to play in socks without shoes, especially on hardwood or tiled floors. Although soccer cleats provide good traction for field sports, they are not appropriate on the gym floor. Oversized clothes and pants that are worn around the knees can cause campers to trip and fall. Hats and hoods can slip over the eyes during play, blocking the campers' vision.

Campers should not have pens or other objects in their pockets, and should not chew gum or eat while playing. Campers who wear glasses should have a restraint to keep the glasses in place during play. Consider requiring protective eye equipment for games such as floor hockey and racquetball. Require participants to wear any protective equipment that is standard according to the rules of the game. For example, softball and baseball catchers must wear helmets, face masks, and throat protectors (Gaskin, 1993).

The game


Games should never include actions such as running backward, spinning until dizzy, or diving or being propelled headfirst. These actions carry a high risk of serious injury. In tagging games, emphasize that a tag is only a touch, not a slap or a hit. Players should be tagged on the back, below shoulder level, so that they are not thrown off balance or tagged in the head or face (Graham et al., 1993).

Discourage actions which are not a part of the game, such as roughhousing or horseplay, and enforce game rules. Make sure that the staff members who are supervising do not encourage campers to value competitiveness and winning over safety (Alberts, 1995). Allowing or ignoring these attitudes can lead to escalation of negative interactions. It can also lead to injury if players become too competitive or frustrated with each other.

In games or relays that involve jumping over obstacles, the obstacle should be low enough so that everyone can jump over it and land in control (Graham et al., 1993). These obstacles should also move easily and not catch and hold players' feet.

Establish traffic patterns that help players to avoid collisions. For example, in relays, have all players follow the same route around the turning point (e.g., all the players go up on the left side of the cone and turn to the right around the cone to return). If the game involves players bending down to pick up equipment or touch lines, make sure that the equipment and the players are arranged in such a way that players do not bang heads on their way up or down.


In games involving ball throwing, teach campers to throw only to someone with whom they have meaningful eye contact. In games in which balls are thrown at others, rules should require that players take aim below the waist. These games should be played in an area where ample space separates people who are throwing at each other (e.g., a neutral zone between the players).

Consider using softer balls and pucks that don't hurt when they hit players. These types of balls usually have limited speed and are also easier to grasp, making them ideal for younger campers.

Make rules for safe use of equipment such as hockey sticks, bats, and scooters.

* Hockey stick blades should be kept low to the ground and below the waist. Sticks with foam blades help reduce the risk of injury. The ball or puck should stay close to the ground.

* Bats should be dropped, not thrown, after the hit. Teach players to carry the bat a few steps up the first baseline and then drop it outside the baseline. This not only keeps players from throwing the bat, it also places the bat far out of the way of the catcher and runners coming to home plate. Players awaiting their turns to hit should stand back from the batting area. Catchers and umpires should not be behind the plate if they are not wearing helmets, masks with throat protectors, shin guards, and chest protectors.

* Secure all bases. Improperly secured bases may slide out from under a runner, causing a fall. Consider using breakaway bases to avoid injuries caused by improper sliding into immobile bases (Brown, 1993).

* Do not use scooters as skateboards; falls can result in serious back injuries. Remind campers to hold the scooter handles so that hands and fingers stay out from under the wheels.

The environment


If the game is played outside, walk around and make sure the area is free of holes and depressions that could trip players. Dangerous objects such as logs, rocks, and glass should be removed. Non-moveable objects, including roots, stumps, the edges of large rocks, pipes, and sprinkler heads should be covered. Large traffic cones work well for this. Place a permanent spotter in front of or over the object to keep players from running over or into it, or arrange boundaries so that these objects are not in the play area.

Will the surface cause players to slip at normal game speed? If the surface does not provide good footing, relocate the game, change the game, or modify the actions so that players are not in danger.


Do not be afraid to modify the rules of the game because of the number of players, the size of the playing area, the size and texture of the ball, or the size of the striking implement (Gaskin, 1993). Make certain there is enough space for players to move freely without colliding. If the game uses equipment, provide sufficient space to use it properly. As a general rule, when you increase the number of people playing, increase the movement or speed of movement, or add equipment, especially things that will be used as projectiles in the game, you need to increase the size of the play space.


Does the field provide enough out-of-bounds room for safe stopping? Boundaries should be far enough away from walls and other non-moveable objects so that players who inadvertently go out of bounds have sufficient stopping distance. Players who are intensely involved in the game may not look up in time to avoid collisions with objects that are too close to the boundary lines. Ten feet of clear space beyond the boundaries will give enough room for controlled stops.

Clearly mark boundaries with traffic cones or other highly visible markers. Walls should never be used as boundaries or turning points for relays. Relay participants running up to touch the wall may jam or break fingers.


Temperature, humidity, and wind are the three factors that most affect body temperature. On very hot and humid days, schedule active games for the cooler parts of the day, rather than the middle of the day. On cold, wet, rainy days, take the activity indoors to avoid hypothermia. Rain also makes the ground slippery and unsafe.


Injuries are more likely to occur when players are fatigued. Avoid playing intense games when campers are likely to be too tired to participate safely. At the end of a long day or an intense period of activity, it is better to play a quiet game or stop play. Consider giving time outs or alternating more demanding games with less demanding games.

Time of day also determines lighting and playing surface conditions. Are there areas where sun glare may make it impossible for players to see the ball or other players in time to react? If you are playing at night, make sure that players have enough light to be able to see each other and oncoming objects, as well as stationary objects in the environment. Fields that are perfectly safe in the middle of the day may be too wet and slippery in the early morning or late evening for safe footing. Schedule baseball and softball games for the times of day when fields are most likely to be dry.

Game objective

What is your objective in playing the game? What do you want the players to experience and learn? These questions are especially helpful if you find, after reviewing the other elements, that the game is not as safe as it should be. Is this game so important that its benefits outweigh its risks? Could the game be modified to reduce risks? Is there another game, with fewer safety concerns, that would achieve the same purpose?

These are all questions that should be asked at the outset of planning for any game activity at camp. If the players, game, and environment do not match, select more appropriate games or modify the games to more closely match the developmental level of the players and eliminate unsafe elements.

This games risk management planning will help to avoid injuries and make game play a safer and more satisfying experience.


Alberts, C. L. (1995). Liability and Games: The teacher's responsibility. In R. L. Clements (Ed.), Games & Great Ideas: A guide for elementary school physical educators and teachers (pp. 53-59). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Brown, S. C. (1993, February). Selecting Safe Equipment: What do we really know? JOPERD, 33-34.

Gaskin, L. P. (1993, February). Establishing, Communicating, and Enforcing Rules and Regulations. JOPERD, 26-27.

Graham, G., Holt, Hale, S.A., & Parker, M. (1993). Children Movina, A Reflective Approach to Teaching Physical Education (3rd ed.). Mountainview, CA: Mayfield.

RELATED ARTICLE: Age-appropriate activities

Burns, M. (1993.) Time In. London, Ontario: Burns-Johnston.

Early childhood (4-6 years old)

Development: Campers in this stage of development have very short attention spans. They often have trouble making choices. There is a wide variety in developmental levels in this age group and these children often have difficulty cooperating. Eye/hand coordination and gross motor skills are just developing.

Activities: Activity centers are a good choice for this group. Children can move from one stop to another before they are bored; they can also work at their own developmental levels. Stories, finger plays, and songs are usually hits. Cooperative activities and team games are inappropriate because of the variety of skills and developmental stages.

Leaders: Leaders should actively guide these campers from one activity to another; they should also be ready to help if a camper has difficulty making decisions.

Middle childhood (7-9 years old)

Development: These campers are increasing their attention spans, developing and mastering muscle skills, and becoming more able to cooperate. They often overestimate their abilities; there is still a wide variety of developmental levels.

Activities: These campers enjoy being challenged, as well as testing their strength and endurance. Tag and climbing equipment are good choices. Toward the end of this stage, campers can be successful in team activities.

Leaders: Allow the children to have input in choosing and teaching games. Leaders make final decisions and guide the group's actions.

Late childhood (10-12 years old)

Development: These campers are more accepting and more flexible. They have a strong sense of honesty and fair play.

Activities: Team sports and activities. Activity programming, for both large and small groups, is also a good choice.

Leaders: This group still requires constant attention, but the group can usually deal with conflicts or behavior problems.

Early adolescence (12-15 years old)

Development: These campers are loyal to peer groups. They tend to be cliquish and often rebel against authority. They have developed problem-solving skills.

Activities: Team sports and games with simulated risk.

Leaders: Allow group members to make at least 50 percent of the decisions. The leader can act as a resource and fill the role of a facilitator.

Late adolescence (15-19 years old)

Development: This group is becoming self-sufficient and reflective. The peer group is still important. These campers are often trying to establish their independence from adult control.

Activities: Team games and sports.

Leaders: Allow these campers to take most of the responsibility for planning and leading activities. The leader should act as a resource and make sure the program runs efficiently.

Nancy Halliday, Ph.D., CCD, is an assistant professor and coordinator of the BSPE program in the department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She has been director of Camp Cherith in the Adirondacks since 1979 and has served on staff there since 1970.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Halliday, Nancy
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Makin' music: songs, rhythm, and creative expression.
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