Dodgeball (or "Human Target Game" if you're not into the whole brevity thing) has long been vilified for being dangerous, unfair, and an outlet for bullying. But I'm going to argue that it just isn't being done right. Rough play is one of the most primal needs of children. It is their way of testing their power and gaining self confidence. I have toddlers at home and they love all rough play... especially wrestling and throwing balls at each other. One of our favorite games is where they chase me while I run, hide, then pop out and pelt them with balls.
All that to say, it's fun to throw at others and be thrown at... assuming it's done well. It's also an amazing way to teach problem solving, conflict resolution, and how to play for the sake of playing.
What's wrong with Dodgeball?
Just like a game of Monopoly, you only know the game is over when everybody is yelling at each other
I don't run the game "DODGEBALL" in my gym. Everything about it causes problems. Here's how a normal game of Dodgeball goes.
The game starts. Immediately the top athlete gets hit and proceeds to argue the rest of the game about how it didn't actually happen. Then somebody gets nailed in the face from less than arm's distance away. After what feels like hours of arguing and complaining, the game is nearly over and on one side, you have 4 players left who are the best athletes in the class (and yes, including the one that got hit at the very beginning and refused to go out) faced off against the two kids on the other side who have never thrown a ball in their life and just spent the entire game hiding in the back corner. Now, all the balls are on their side of the gym and the entire class is yelling at them to THROW THE BALL!!!!!!! Just like a game of Monopoly, you only know the game is over when everybody is yelling at each other.
So let's break down the problems of "regular" dodgeball.
I've got 99 problems and they all started in Dodgeball. - Jay-Z probably
Of course getting hit hard is never fun. No matter who you are. But if you take away the "pain," getting hit is fun. Why do we like water balloon fights? Why are NERF shooters and water guns so popular? It's fun to hit a moving target, avoid being hit, and be hit by something that doesn't inflict pain (which explains the popularity of Laser Tag). Getting hit by a ball is also a skill. The more it happens to you, the more you realize that most of the time it really surprises you more than it hurts.
This is a skill that few people learn. Just like baseball, getting out is a part of the game. If nobody got out, the game would never end. Also, by having a consequence to getting hit, it adds a layer of urgency and purpose to the game.
Tom Petty probably wrote the song "The Waiting" about a game of dodgeball; because the waiting is indeed the hardest part. And you get to sit there and marinate on that ball that hit you... and who threw it.
The Who and the How
It's a social game. Every throw reflects a little bit of a relationship. Mistakes (such as an errant throw that accidentally nails somebody in the face) happen and are rarely fixed. Problems in relationships surface and some use the opportunity to throw balls at others to fulfill their vendettas.
Add all these things together and of course you have a recipe for disaster.
Lets Talk Solutions
Frame getting hit in a positive light: I don't run any throwing and dodging games until the end of the year. I want plenty of time to establish that getting hit by a ball is a good thing. I'll do games where kids want to be goalies and block the ball. This way, when they do get hit, they are helping their team. Even if it hurts, they did something that their team appreciates.
Practice Getting Out
Getting out is hard for young'ns. Some take it way too personal. It's okay to get out and they need to know it. I'll start the year with some Lead Up Games that introduce getting out and I also introduce my yellow spots (a behavior management tool that mimics a stop light. If you're at a yellow spot, it means slow down, fix your small problem and get back to joining us quickly. Basically, they sit out for less than a minute and come back to join us. Everybody goes to yellow spots and they are not a big deal).
Lead up games: With my really young groups, I start with a game called On the Bank/In the River. When you get out, you just grab a seat and you're never out for longer than a minute. Then I move into Gaga Ball, which is the first dodging game I do. It involves hitting a ball towards others, but it has to hit them below the belt for it to count. I'll also do some kicking/soccer activities where it's fun to be the goalie and you're rewarded for stopping the ball with your body.
Start With Small (or Fun) Consequences
With my younger classes, I play "Gaga Ball: Aww Man Style." When you get hit, you just throw your hands up in the air, shout out "AWWW MAN" (preferably in a funny accent), then return to the game. Then I add that they have to touch a wall after yelling it. Then touch a wall and do a push up or spin in 3 circles.
Make the consequences short: Any time they're sitting for longer than a minute or two, boredom kicks in, and they start finding "creative" uses of that time which are never what we want them to do. One way I do this is with a JAIL (where you go to the back of the line when you're out and the first person in line goes in). Sometimes, if there's too many in jail, I'll do multiple jails. If you get out, you go to your jail and the first person in that line goes in (side note: just because you share a jail doesn't mean you're on the same team #justlikereallife). Another solution is to have timed elimination rounds. I'll play "TWO MINUTE TO WIN IT" versions where a new game starts every 2 minutes.
Proactive problem solving
We spend a ton of time on the rules for problem solving. And they're reminded frequently that they cannot play while somebody else has a problem with them. Before any throwing/dodging game, I make sure they understand that some people like hard throws and some don't. Also, your relationship is incredibly important. I can throw hard at my best friend; but if I'm throwing hard at my mortal enemy, no matter how tough they are, it's going to start problems. And, again, you can't play while somebody has a problem with you. If you've been having problems, it might just work better to not throw at that person than risk having more problems. Sometimes it's easier to just not hit somebody than to spend an entire game trying to reason with a difficult person.
Most two sided dodging games have a line between the sides. That line might be 4 inches across at best. There is so much arguing about if somebody was on their side or not. Also, throwing from such a short distance gives zero reaction time. To fix this, I created The River. It's two lines across the gym with a couple feet in between the lines. The rule is that you can reach in and grab a ball from the river as long as you don't touch the river. It's a nice buffer between the sides.
Generally, a great rule for life, just own it when you make mistakes. You get hit, own it, and take yourself out. You hit somebody in the face on accident, own it and go make sure they're okay. When you are recognized as a person who owns it, people are less likely to argue with you and more likely to want to play with you.
Another part of owning it is controlling yourself enough to not throw a ball after you're out. That normally confuses others or makes them upset.
Only the Obvious
If its clear as day that you got somebody, say something. If there's even the smallest chance that it didn't get them, let them own it. It's easier to do with people who regularly own it but also others will be more likely to own it with players who aren't so ticky-tacky in calling out things that maybe happened.
On a side note, if I see something obvious and that player isn't owning it, there's usually a consequence. The first time, they're out. The next time, they miss the next round of the game. After that, maybe the game isn't for them and they need to watch.
If it's obvious, make your point. They're allowed a counterpoint. But there are some rules to this. "You're Out!" is not a valid argument. In fact its one of the forbidden phrases in my gym (and you're also out if you say it). If you say "You're Out," either they don't know why they're out and you need to let them know why or they know they're out and you're rubbing it in. A great example of making a point is "I got you in the leg." A counter-point is not "no you didn't" but more like "it hit the floor first" or "you were already out because James caught your ball."
Change it Up
Games with a twist keep them on their toes and enjoying the game for the sake of playing without needing to add the creativity of adding conflict. Here are some of my favorite "Human Target" games:
Bonafide Awesome Dodging Games
Gaga Ball is played in a "pit" which is normally a large octagon, but can really be any confined shape. In my gym, I just use the two walls of a corner, then add some mats to make a 1/4 circle. The goal is to hit a ball at others (even ricochets count) and hit them in the legs. If they get out, they leave the pit. Here's the rules I play by:
Ways to get out:
- Double Taps: Touching the ball more than once before it touches a wall or another player. This includes using a hand to stop the ball, then hit it.
- Holds: Touching the ball for longer than a split second.
- Hit in Target Zone: The area defined as where it counts if you're hit. I normally say it's "belt and below" but you can play "knees and below" or "anything goes."
- Out of Bounds: Whoever touches the ball last is out when it goes out of the pit. If it leaves the pit, the ball has to touch the ground and another player before it can get somebody out again.
- Saying "You're Out": You can say why somebody is out if they don't know, but that's it.
- Whole Body is a Target When On the Ground (Optional): To prevent people from getting hurt by tripping on somebody, this rule says that you're allowed to touch the ground with just your feet. If any other part of your body (knees, hands, etc) is touching the ground then your entire body is the Target Zone... even your hands. So you can't get hit at all or hit the ball. This gets players off the ground a lot faster and makes the game much more safe.
Gaga Ball Elimination Timer on YouTube
I like to play this game with a JAIL or several JAILS but my favorite version is the 2 MINUTE TO WIN IT version. I made a YouTube playlist with a looping Elimination Timer. I have a projector in my gym, so I'll put it on there and it works out great. It even has the rules posted for easy referral. Check it out by clicking here.
Normally, to begin a game, the ball is tossed in and on each bounce all the players yell "GA." After the second bounce and they've yelled "GA.. GA.." play begins. In 2 MINUTE TO WIN IT style, the ball is placed on the ground in the middle and when the timer starts (there's a ding), play begins. In all versions players need to begin the game by touching a wall of the pit. Leaving the wall early results in being eliminated (or lemonaded as some of my students call it).
Like Gaga Ball, Sprout Ball is a no-sides/no-teams dodging game. Only in this game, the ball is being thrown instead of hit. Additionally, instead of leaving the area when you're out, you just sit and become a "sprout." Sprouts can't get others out, but they can help. Check out the short video below for how to play.
Maybe the greatest dodging game ever. One team runs around the gym, ducking behind mats, while the other team is throwing at them from the middle. Check it out below.
This game is set up like regular dodgeball with two teams facing off against each other with a River in the middle.
Each side is a team of robots, facing off against each other in a "water balloon" fight with the balls being our water balloons. The basic gist of the game is destroy the other side and don't get wet. If you get wet, you fizzle out and collapse to the ground (the more dramatic, the better). When that happens, your teammates try to drag you to a repair shop (a mat at the back of each side) without getting themselves wet. It's important to emphasize that when you're being dragged by the arms to pull up on your teammates arms so they don't pull too hard. I also recommend girls tie their hair up. If you are playing on a carpeted or rubber surface, I recommend getting out some scooters so it's easier to drag defective robots.
For the Younger Ones
Bowling for People
Set up with a team on each side and a River in the middle. The goal is to roll balls at the other team's feet while keeping your feet from getting hit. Instead of being out, they can either complete a task (yell AWW MAN, touch a wall, do a push up, etc.) or sit and help others.
Same setup as bowling for people, but you have to throw it and hit players in the knees or lower. I like to play this one with a Jail on each side. When one person goes to the back of the line, the first person gets in.
Go Forth and Play Well
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dodging games can be played well as long as the players have clear expectations of how to play without causing problems and how to fix them when they start. Really, it's as simple as players being collaborators instead of attackers and victims.