If you’re looking for a quick way to get conversation going in a room full of camp people, ask this question: “What is the best camp game?” After the yelling dies down and you get that one guy out of a headlock, you’ll be in just about the same place you were before. Everyone has their go-to games and each camp has it’s tried and true list of games they teach counselors every year. When you’re in a pinch and need to get a game going NOW, you’re going to play that same one that you’ve been leaning on since summer one. And it works. So, what’s the point of playing new games? And why are games so important to begin with?
Camp games, along with just about everything else we do at camp, are intended to facilitate experience, conversation, and relationships. From the “time wasters” around the table to the crazy competitions on the field, the games you play with your campers should be integral to the transformation you want to see in them at the end of the week. The point might not always come across as clearly as an initiative breakdown – “we each had a role in the game like we all have a role in the body of Christ, etc. etc.” – but you should know the purpose and impact of each activity whether you’re letting the campers in on it or not. Building trust, encouraging creativity, emphasizing the importance of diversity, removing barriers, developing confidence, and creating memorable moments are just some of the “side effects” of playing a game.
The more games you can add to your arsenal, the better. As someone involved in youth ministry/camping/any social setting, you become an asset to your team when you can facilitate purpose-driven activities – especially ones that are new and exciting. When week 8 rolls around and your senior high campers are getting sassy – “I already know ~the point~ of this game, Sara – you can hit them with a challenge that gets them functioning as a team in new ways (and you can have the last word which is fun).
I know there is no way I could sit here and serve up THE list of camp games. That would make me camp Yoda and I would be getting paid lots of money for my knowledge and gracing others with my presence (I’m not). I can however facilitate a conversation on what games Sam and I love, the categories we see games fall into, and what games YOU love at your camp. Check out some of our favorites, then share yours – and how you use them to create transformation at camp.
The GTKYs (Get To Know You Games)
These games are the foundation for building your team. Some “getting to know you” will happen organically, but facilitating it through games helps level the playing field and discourages cliquing.
Toilet Paper Game
Passing around a roll of toilet paper, tell your campers someone forgot to place the order and that’s all the paper you have for the week. They should take the amount they think they will need to “make it.” After the paper has been passed, explain that each person now has to share a fact about themselves for each square of paper they are holding. (Make sure to gather paper up and recycle at the end.)
The TP game is one that makes everyone laugh. Your returning campers get to be in on the joke, and your newbies just think it’s funny you’re talking about bathroom habits in the first 30 minutes of camp. Pro Tip: Set a timer during which each camper has to say their personal facts – otherwise you end up with the kid who filibusters the game.
Have the group walk around the space, weaving through each other while saying/chanting/singing the word “mingle” over and over again. When the facilitator shouts “GROUPS OF 4 (or whatever number)” they should immediately cling to those closest to form a group and sit down. The facilitator then says a direction such as “share your favorite book” or “share a time when you won something” and lets the conversation progress until they are ready to yell MINGLE again.
I mostly love Mingle because it is hilarious to listen to everyone chant like the birds from Finding Nemo. Cracks me up every time. It’s also great for getting people to have face-to-face conversations with a variety of people early on. Pro Tip: Consider the group size and directions as inverses – groups of nine should have directions like “share your favorite ice cream” while groups of two or three can have directions like “share something you are excited about and nervous about for this week.”
The Active Games
Games with energy drive excitement and teamwork in your group, and competition is healthy for group dynamic (nothing bonds kids faster than determination to win an imaginary prize). Keep in mind that active games are inherently the ones where the playing field divides – adding silly/awkward/chaotic elements to active games keeps certain kids from stealing the show.
So, there’s a rubber chicken and running around and passing things between your legs… Why don’t I just let Ultimate Camp Resource explain:
“1) Start with 2 teams. 2) One camper is given a throwable object [rubber chicken], their team then forms a circle around them and that person throws the object. 3) After he/she has thrown the object then he/she goes around the circle saying everyone's name in order of the circle. Every time he makes it around the circle it counts as a run. 4)Meanwhile the other team is chasing the object. Everyone forms a line behind the first person that has gotten the object. They then pass the object between their legs until it reaches the last person, where it is then passed overhead back to the first person in line. [we always do an “over under” pattern to the back and to the front] 5) When the first person gets the object the team yells out, and the other team stops counting runs. The first person in line that retrieved the object now has a circle formed around him and he throws the object and the process reverses.” (UCR)
We once had a camp counselor so obsessed with this game that he bought himself a personal rubber chicken to make sure he was always ready to play. It gets intense, but is hilarious and different from the typical Monday night kickball.
Each person is armed with half a pool noodle. The object is to tag the other player with the noodle – but only on the butt. When a player is tagged, they hold their noodle over their head and come out of bounds for a new noodle. With a new noodle, they are back in play.
The 12-year-olds and I always ALWAYS laugh at the name butt tag. You can call it something more appropriate if you want to, but it is just plain fun no matter what it’s called. This is one of those games that gets everybody looking and feeling ridiculous, which is awesome for breaking down barriers and opening the group up. There’s no winner and plenty of chaos – what’s not to love? Pro Tip: Anyone who gets crazy/out of control with the noodle sits out the rest of that round.
Have everyone break off in pairs and link elbows. Designate one team to start – one person chases the other person. The person being chased can link arms with one of the other teams by saying the person’s name and then linking arms with them. The “third link” must then run, as they are now the one being chased.
Most people know this one, but it is so simple and perfect for being in a pinch that I had to include it. It is a magic game that most groups will just keep playing FOREVER until you stop them. I love it because those who are not “running inclined” can just link up again quickly but still participate. Pro Tip: If you notice a chaser is struggling to catch anyone, yell SWITCH and the runner is now the chaser (so the former chaser can link up again and catch a break).
The "What Do We Do Now" Games
I hate wasted time. There’s definitely a time and place for free hangout time, but those moments of sitting and waiting when you see the boredom setting in are the perfect time to bust out one of these. You can use those otherwise pointless periods to laugh together and create “campy” memories.
Everyone sits in a circle with their hands on the table/ground in front of them. Each person places their left hand on the other side of the person to their left’s right hand (so that the hands in the circle now alternate mine, not mine, mine). The goal is to tap the table one hand at a time in the circle (it’s way harder than it sounds). Ramp things up by going faster or double tapping to reverse the direction.
I don’t know why this game is so fun. It makes no sense, but it’s addicting. Once it’s introduced, campers will start to do it on their own whenever they are bored. Campers facilitating their own productive activity? Sign me up.
Everyone stands in a circle facing each other. One player yells “ninja” and the players freeze in their best ninja poses. Beginning with the player who declared ninja, the players take turns attempting to swipe one of their neighbors’ hands. The other player may move to evade the attack, but both players must freeze in the pose the move leaves them in. Next, the defending player takes their turn attempting to swat one of their neighbors’ hands. If a player’s hand is swatted they have “lost” that hand. The goal is to be the last player with a “good hand.” Important note: players may move their arms and bodies only when attacking or defending, but their feet must remain planted.
This game has a cult following (including Sam) that I do not understand. However, it is the perfect game for standing around in parking lots or whatever other moments when you’re like “uhhhhh, NINJA.” It will not let you down.
The "Why Did We Ever Teach Them This" Games
There are camp games in this world that once you have introduced them, you can’t take them back. Your campers will shun all other activities and want only to play these games for hours on end. They will drive you absolutely insane, but for some reason they build a bond between your campers that you don’t know how to facilitate otherwise – so bring on the spoons.
Spoons (AKA Demon Musical Chairs)
Players are dealt a hand of cards and spoons are placed in the middle of the table – one less than the number of players. Dealer draws one card at a time from deck and passes it around the circle. Each person can pass the card or keep it and pass another. When a player achieves 4 of a kind, they grab a spoon and everyone else must grab a spoon. Person without a spoon is out.
There is always blood with Spoons. Okay, almost always. People will murder each other over this game, but it is all worth it for the memories they’ll make in the end – right? Pro Tip: Don’t play with forks.
This is one you can either buy a set of cards for (PHARISEES) or create your own with a normal deck of cards, as follows:
Narrator – “Everyone go to sleep. (Everyone closes their eyes.) Mafia wake up. Point out who you want to “whack.” (They silently indicate a player.) Mafia go to sleep. Doctor wake up. Who do you want to heal? (Doctor selects a person. If same person as mafia selected, they survive.) Doctor go to sleep. Detective wake up. Who do you want to investigate? (Detective points to a person and narrator nods if they are mafia.) Detective go to sleep. Everyone wake up.”
The narrator then recalls a tale if a player was in fact “wacked” and they are out of the game. If the doctor was successful, “it was a quiet night.” A strangely serious discussion then ensues in which the townspeople (everyone participates to keep identities a secret) decide if anyone should go on trial. That person can “defend” themselves on why they aren’t mafia, but are put to a vote and if voted as mafia, executed. (I know, I don’t understand how this one makes it at camp either.) The rounds essentially continue that way until one team wins – by killing off the other team.
I know this one is definitely a hard sell (all the killing), but I can’t say enough how much high school campers LOVE this game. From a facilitator standpoint, mafia lets people be creative and put on a character, which I think ironically gets them to be themselves more. It will also reveal the good liars in your group, which is useful information. (I’m kidding – kind of.) Mafia is great for late nights and takes some focus/commitment to be played well. It’s hard to explain, but everyone loves Mafia. Pro Tip: A quick Google search will offer a bunch of twists you can add to mix things up – or come up with your own!
Games For A Reason
I know I said that all games we play at camp are for a reason, but these are some of my favorites with immediate turnaround. I love games and object lessons that have a-ha moments – I often take time out of Bible studies or devotions for these games.
Divide group into teams of 4ish. Wrap the team together using a roll of cellophane. Then, have the teams perform a race/obstacle course, timing each team. Team with the best time wins.
Super simple, but the breakdown is KILLER. Discuss with your group what made the game harder/easier. Ask what would happen if one person chose to veer off on their own path versus everyone going together toward the goal. The point here is to bring the team to an understanding that striving toward the goals of the week together is going to be an easier ride, and that one person can easily derail the whole production.
I See You See
You’ll need a couple printed out pictures of objects/plants/animals. Everyone needs paper and a writing utensil. Have a volunteer come up and describe the image using only shape words (i.e. draw a circle on top of a line next to a square). Compare the original to the group’s drawings. Try a couple times with new volunteers.
This one is a little difficult to get the “describer” to play along, but worth it for the lesson (and the hilariously bad drawings). I love to use this with groups before a week filled with worship, small group, and chapel lessons to encourage them to discover their own beliefs. In the same way that their image of a cake is not clear or perfect when received through someone else, their understanding of God/Jesus/faith and their own beliefs won’t be 100% when it comes out of someone else’s mouth. It’s important for campers to trust leaders, but it’s also extremely important for them to see their own understanding of what they believe.
Things You Didn’t Notice
Collect a nonsensical list of observations from around camp (i.e. how many lights are in the dining hall, what color is the sign at the barn, etc.) and quiz the group (usually in teams). Whoever gets the most correct wins. They won’t get many, but this is the point.
This one goes deep pretty fast. I ask the group to discuss what was hard about the game, and lead them to the conclusion that they just don’t normally pay attention to or notice little details like that. Our week together could be very similar to this game, where we don’t notice the people around us or what they are going through, or very different, where we take time to focus on others and get to know them for real. This is a great way to have the “you never know what someone is going through” conversation with a tangible concept of how it feels to have not noticed something right under your nose.
These are some tried and true Richardson favorite games – in fact, I’m sure some of our past campers are reading this and groaning at the thought of playing them AGAIN. So, we need your help to grow our camp game collection! What games are famous at your camp and how do they help you transform lives?