A Brilliant Design: The AWANA Game Circle


So, there’s this Christian children’s club, called AWANA. When it was founded in the 50’s, its creators wanted to include athletic games in each evening’s schedule. They wanted to design a system that let the kids have fun, without encouraging cut-throat competition.

So, they designed the AWANA Circle, one of the most ingenious designs I’ve ever seen.

It’s a 40-foot square, within which is a 30-foot circle. Each side of the square is a different color: red, blue, green, and yellow. Diagonal lines (one of each color) cross the square. There’s also a six-foot square in the center.

The kids are divided into four teams, one for each color, and they stand just outside the square, on their color line, facing inwards. Most of the games are running games, which involve running around the circle. So, each kid positions himself just outside the circle, next to the diagonal line, and at the starter’s whistle, runs around the circle a certain number of times. After the last lap, the runner goes into the middle of the circle, where a bowling pin sits atop a bean bag. Whoever grabs the bowling pin wins first place, and whoever gets the bean bag gets second place.

Okay, seems fine. But think about this:

Because of the four-team design, kids aren’t focusing on one opponent. One week, Green wins; another week, Blue wins. Kids can compete without obsessing.

Moreover, choosing colors for team names depersonalizes them a bit. There’s no magic in being defeated by Blue Team, compared to being beaten by the Cougars or the Wolverines.

And because there are four teams, in a larger group with several dozen kids, that narrows down each team to a relatively small group. Kids don’t get lost and forgotten in a huge team of twenty.

The system also encourages creative game design. One of my favorites is bean bag relay: one kid on each team is in the center of the circle, while eight team-mates line up just outside the circle. The center kid tosses a bean bag at each team-mate, who tosses it back, in sequence. This requires attention and precise muscle control; you can’t throw it too hard or too softly. A significant challenge for an eight-year-old.

Another: bean bags are spread around inside the center square, and ten kids on each team line up just outside the circle. Each one is assigned a number. The game leader calls out a number, and that kid (on each team) runs in to grab as many bean bags as possible.

AWANA provides a number of implements, too, like batons, bean bags, and pins. But their simple nature is another important design element: kids aren’t collecting anything of intrinsic value; they’re not trying to grab candy bar, or win better treatment. It’s all just a collection of points. And kids pick up on that. If AWANA kids lose, they’re disappointed, but they shrug it off more quickly than other teams I’ve seen.

Imagine: competitive, physical games that don’t encourage ten-year-olds to get hyper or highly competitive. What a design!

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