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I used to have a love/hate relationship with Four Square. I loved it because virtually every age group could play together on a relatively level playing field. I also loved it because it doesn't take much space or equipment. Then I hate it because, like a lot of popular games, there can be a lot of ambiguity, which always leads to arguing. For a while, I gave up entirely on the game. It wasn't worth the effort to teach a game that almost always ended up in a fight.
Then, I took a dive off the deep end and decided to host a Four Square club for the last year. An hour of Four Square every day with the same group of kids, ranging from K-5th grade. I managed to transform it into one of my favorite activities (and one that I keep as a warm up option for my 3rd-5th graders). Here's how I introduce it now.
Four Square Skills
I start every school year teaching the underhand strike, striking a ball that is on the floor. Not only is it one of the easiest skills to master, it leads perfectly into striking with implements, then to throwing and catching. The other advantage to it is that the first striking games I teach are games that I use for warm ups and my Ultimate Sub Plan.
The other skills required are essential for all games. Two that I focus on the most are:
- Is it obvious? - There can be a lot of ambiguity in games. In baseball, for example, there are arguments about if a pitch is a ball or strike. Whether a player is safe or out. In football, there are debates over what is and isn't a catch, legal tackle, hold, or pass interference. In Four Square, the ball moves quickly and you have to decipher who's square the ball landed in or if it landed in bounds or out of bounds. My solution to this is the Is It Obvious rule. If it's obvious that something happened, we can talk about it. If it's not obvious, just play on.
- Own it - This one is not just a game skill but a life skill. Owning it is the process of being honest with yourself and using mistakes as learning opportunities. Take baseball for example. You tried stealing a base and got caught. Instead of arguing that the defender's foot was off base, acknowledge that maybe you misjudged the timing. Maybe the defense just made an awesome play. In Four Square, you make the best play you can. And when it doesn't work out, just own it. By doing so, you take that experience and grow from it. This is an important step in growing true self confidence. When you can be honest with yourself and grow from mistakes, you show yourself what you're capable of and that you can always be better than you were before... even by just a little.
Beyond that, I make sure to cover how important it is to move your feet. If you're stuck in concrete, striking activities will frustrate you. For this reason, the first striking activity I teach is Gaga Ball. This game is perfect for striking a moving ball and moving your feet to make a play.
Gaga Ball is played in a "pit". For me, the pit is a corner of the gym, with mats making up the walls
The idea is that you strike the ball towards others' legs. If you get hit in the legs (even if it ricochets off a wall), you're out. When you're out, you exit the pit.
If you have a hard time with games that use people as targets, I highly recommend checking out my Well Played Dodgeball post. There are ways to play where ALL players can enjoy the game. And Gaga Ball is no exception.
My rules for getting out in Gaga Ball are if you:
- Get hit in the target zone - In my class, this is your belt and lower. However, for safety reasons, if you're on the ground (diving or knees on the ground), your entire body becomes the target zone. So if you even hit the ball or the ball hits your face, you're out.
- Double tap the ball or hold it - Throws are considered holds. And once you touch the ball, you aren't allowed to touch it again until it touches a wall or another player. The most common double-tap is when a player stops the ball, then hits it forward. I have a minor rule where you can only hit it off the wall 3 times to yourself before somebody else has to touch it. This way the rest of the group doesn't have to sit there watching a player play with themselves while everybody else's clothes are going out of style.
- Out of bounds - If you're the person who touched it last when it leaves the pit, you're out.
- Saying "You're Out" - When you say it, either they already know they're out and you're rubbing it in or they don't know that they're out and you aren't giving them the information they need. Saying "I got you" or "double tap" are great substitutions.
- Some people play where you can catch a ball that's hit up in the air, and get the hitter out. I avoid the rule at first, but I'll add it with advanced players.
I can't stand games where people are out for a long time because waiting is booorrrinng. Sometimes I'll play with a jail. In the jail version, there's a line of people who are out. When somebody gets out, they go to the back of the line and the first person in line goes in. But my favorite way to play is Minute-to-Win-it Elimination Style. I have a video on my board that has a countdown timer. When they're out, they can play a different game and re-join when the next game begins. Check out the video below.
How I Lead Up to Gaga Ball
With my youngest students, we start out standing on dots and hitting balls around the floor. I give them the goal of trying to slap the ball through somebody else's legs. Then we transition into moving around and hitting the ball. Instead of using the word OUT, I say they're TOAST. When they're TOAST, they run over to my mats (which I call the TOASTER), sit down, then stand right back up. I explain that bread goes to the toaster to get better. So if you go to the toaster, come back in even better than when you left. Right away, we have two ways to become TOAST: If the ball hits your legs or if you pick it up. For Kindergarten and First grades, those are the rules. With Second grade, I determine if they can handle adding the other rules and then add them in slowly. Double taps are the hardest to learn so I spend plenty of time introducing the rule and give lots of lee-way with it.
Gaga Ball gives them the necessary skills of moving their feet and striking a ball that is rolling towards them. Beyond that, I want them to strike with strategy. And have a little bit more pressure on them to move their feet and stay in the game. This is where Floor Square comes in. And this is where we learn the basics of Four Square.
*For Kindergarten and First grade, I just move from this into Lumberjacks & Planters, then Striking stations (hitting a ball through a goal, hitting underhand/overhand into buckets, etc.). Second grade learns Floor Square but they spend a lot more time on it.
I might even like Floor Square more than I like Four Square. I came up with the game because I got tired of a lot of the arguments that came from Four Square. It's not always obvious who's square the ball went into. It's not always obvious whether the ball bounced in bounds or out of bounds. So I found a way to eliminate a lot of those areas of difficulty. The game is set up like this:
Teaching the Rotation
The first thing I teach is how the rotation works. I'll have a couple students stand with me in a line. I'm first, so I'm holding up the number one with my hand. The other students hold up their hands for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Then I tell them to imagine we're at Chipotle, waiting in line (because I love Chipotle and that's the only place I wait in lines anymore). If Player 2 leaves to go wash their hands, who moves up? The obvious answer is the people in 3rd and 4th. Then the player that left just goes to the back. I repeat the question a couple times, then we go over to the court. I don't use the terms KING, QUEEN, etc. Instead, I have dots like you'd see on dice in each corner. Those dots indicate FIRST, SECOND, THIRD, FOURTH. And you want to get to FIRST. That way, you can serve.
Here's a quick look at how to play Floor Square:
Floor Square Rules
- Hit it out of somebody else's square - It must touch the player or the player’s square to get a player out. Buckets are neutral and don't count as hitting anything.
- No Double Taps or Holds - I allow 2nd graders and younger to stop the ball then hit it, but everybody else is allowed only a single hit. If they hit it off a bucket, they can hit it again as long as it's in their square.
- Only hit the ball when it's in your square - If it's on the line between squares, you can hit it but you can't hit it when it's in somebody else's square.
- Serves - The ball is placed in the corner and the server hits it with both hands. The ball must leave their square. If the ball hits one of the buckets in their square and comes back to them, they can't hit it again (this only applies to serves). If the ball leaves their square, hits one of the further away buckets and comes back, they can hit that.
- Open/underhand hits only - You cannot hit with fists or overhand. I describe underhand as pointing your fingers downward.
- Keep your feet behind the imaginary line between your buckets - It's more of a guideline. The game is not near as fun if all players are way up in the front of the squares. It prevents movement, which is really the point of the game.
- Need to stay on feet - If anything but your feet (knees for example) is touching the ground, you can't touch the ball. If you do, you are out.
- If the ball touches the player and not the square, see if the player is in-bounds or not - If the player is in-bounds at all, then that player would be out. However, if they're out of bounds when the ball touches them, then whoever hit it would be out... because there is no way the ball could have bounced in bounds if the player is out of bounds.
- Play On - For minor infractions or maybe calls, I use the play on rule. If it could have been a hold, we point that out while playing and play on. If a player’s feet keep going in front of their bucket, we mention it and play on. But, if a player gets somebody out by breaking one of the rules, the player who broke the rule is out. For instance, if it looked like a hold and that hold got somebody out, then the player who held the ball would be out. This is because breaking that rule created an unfair advantage.
- 3 v 1 rule - If all three other players on the court agree on what happened, then the one person is out. If it's not clear enough to be 3 v 1, then just replay the round. I make sure to point out that 3 v 1 calls are almost always right. And when they're not, and somebody feels like all the others just want them to be out, it has a lot to do with how that person plays. This situation always happens to the players that argue everything. It makes the other players not want to play with them, and thus causes them to be less forgiving when it comes to that player. People will treat you the way you make them feel and they'll always choose the path of least resistance. So if you're making people feel like they don't want to play with you, they'll treat you accordingly. Or if you are creating unnecessary conflict, they'll prefer you not to be in the game so it can go more smoothly. If you play in a way that is conflict-resistant and treat others well, then whenever 3 people agree on a call, it's because that's what they all saw.
After my students have a full understanding of Floor Square, I use it as an instant warm up activity. This way they get TONS of practice with the skills involved and we learn to proactively and reactively problem solve. The next activity I teach them is Air Pong. They already have the skills to strike a quickly moving ball on the floor. Now we use a slower moving object, but it's in the air which makes it more challenging.
Air Pong Rules
You score when the balloon lands in the opponent's square or if the opponent hits the balloon out of bounds.
Serves must be from behind the back line and you're allowed three hits every time the balloon is on your side.
- Non-hits (holds) give opponent the point
- Server is allowed 1 FAULT (2 faults gives opponent the point)
- Whoever won the last point SERVES
- Any SPIKE has to be from inside your square
With the skills of hitting a slow moving object in the air, it's time to up the challenge by hitting an object that's moving a little faster (a ball instead of a balloon), but also more predictably. Table Ball is perfect for this challenge.
In Table Ball, the Server rolls the ball across the table to the other player. From that point, it's important to remember "Table, Floor, Hands, Table, Floor, Hands, etc"
The ball rolls off the table, the other player lets the ball bounce on the ground only once then hits the ball back onto the table. The ball can hit the table an infinite amount of times, but can only hit the hands and floor once. If a player hits the ball and they fail to land the ball on the table, the other player earns the point.
We play to two points before the person who loses moves to the line and the next challenger steps in. If you miss the table, you lost the point and the other person gets it. Double tapping, holding the ball, or hitting it with anything but the hands also results in the opponent gaining the point. The most complex rule is the same edge rule. You're allowed to hit any edge of the table except for the one you're closest to. If the ball bounces back to you, you lose the point.
The same edge rule is awesome for explaining why rules exist. They create balance. If one player hits the ball to a side edge of the table, it's very challenging for them to do successfully and it's very challenging for the opponent to field the ball. The challenge is high, but it's a fairly equal challenge for both players. However if a player hits their same edge, it's not very challenging for them while it's almost impossible for the opponent to get to. Because there's a huge disparity in the challenge level, there's a rule in place to even things out.
Where Table Ball gives ample time to react, Two Square makes you quick on your feet.
- Stand behind your square
- Bounce the ball then hit it to opponent’s square
Lose Point By
- Fail to hit opponent’s square
- Double taps or holds
- Hit overhand
- Out of bounds
- Hitting ball with anything but hands
- Hitting ball out of turn
*If a player touches the ball before it touches the ground, the location of the touch determines if it was in/out of bounds
In Two Square, the most important rule is:
- Underhand hits - Hits where your fingers are pointed down and you hit the bottom half of the ball. The game is about placement and strategy instead of speed.
Two Square is great for continuing to use the Play-On rule. If the ball maybe hit your square, just keep playing. There will come a time when it's obvious that the ball landed out of bounds.
Pro Tip: For new players, I put something between the squares that they will need to hit the ball over. In my “gym” I use the Igloo water coolers or barrels that I hold equipment in. This makes them hit the ball higher, giving the other player more time to react. It’s okay for the ball to hit the buckets as long as it goes over and lands in the other player’s square.
The nice thing about this progression is that we are only introducing a couple new rules at a time and borrowing rules from other games. It makes the game so much more fun when everybody has a lot of experience with the rules involved in the game. Four Square adds multiple directions you can hit the ball.
In Four Square, the most basic rules are this:
- If the ball touches your square, you have to hit it. And it can only bounce once in your square.
- You can only touch the ball when it touches your square - If the ball bounces in another person’s square, then you touch it, you just saved that person and got yourself out. You must wait for it to bounce in your square before striking it.
- Underhand hits only - Fingers pointed down, only hitting the bottom half of the ball. The game is about placement and strategy instead of speed.
- Serve - Stand behind the corner, bounce the ball in the corner, then hit it with both hands.
For Four Square to truly work, the Play-On Rule is so important. The official rules say that if the ball bounces on an inside line, then that's out of bounds; but realistically most of those plays are plays that are clearly determined for a specific square. If the ball hits a line and it causes confusion, then it's out of bounds. Otherwise, just play on. The purpose of the game is to play!
Trip Wire Four Square
Love Four Square but not the arguing? Check out Trip Wire Four Square.
While Four Square is great, sometimes you need to mix things up a little. So I created Four Circle. I use four large hula hoops and set them up like a Four Square court. You play just like Four Square except for a couple things. First, it's very obvious whether the ball hit inside your circle or not. If it hits the hoop, it's considered neutral. If it bounces away from the hoop, it's an out of bounds hit. If it bounces into the hoop, it's in bounds.
Just like Four Square, the ball must hit inside your hoop before you can touch it. But unlike Four Square, there's a nice twist.
In Four Circle, after you hit the ball, you can move your hoop. The rules for this:
- You have to slide the hoop (not throw it). This makes the moves quick, but under control. It also keeps the movement fair.
- You can only slide the hoop right after hitting the ball, and before the next person hits. Otherwise, people would just move their hoop away from where the ball is going.
Play like 4 square except you can SLIDE hoop:
with HAND, AFTER hit, and BEFORE next person hits
Hoop hits are neutral
MUST hit in circle before ball hits hands/arms
I've played some intense games of Four Circle where we got our hoops a good 15-20 feet away from each other. There's some fun strategy involved in deciding to move your hoop away from other hoops or towards them. When a new game starts, just make sure all hoops are touching like the picture above.
By the end of all this, I have tons of instant activities my students use for warm up choices and they fit perfectly into the Ultimate Sub Plan. You can download all these activities in the Striking Activity Pack. Print them out and hang them on your wall for instant activities or put them in your Sub Folder. Check it out below. Each page has a clear picture and super simple rules.
By the end of this unit, my students are great at striking, whether on the ground or in the air. And more importantly, almost all of these activities are things they can play at recess or out in their neighborhoods. They're great for kids and adults alike and kids can even be successful playing against adults. Size and strength really don't give you much of an advantage.
I recently ended up at a brewery with some of my best friends from college and they had a Four Square court. We had a blast playing... although it was significantly more challenging with a drink in hand. And that's what I call a Well Played life