Dear Sean,
I'm a youth worker at a church K-8 after school program near Kansas City. The kids show up for three hours when school lets out. We lead games and activities that try to teach church values.

We've got all kinds of activities but the most popular is box ball. Kids go bananas for it. They would play all afternoon if we let them. The problem is that the games usually turn into riots, name calling, and sometimes fights. I don't know what comes over them and I've started to jokingly refer to it as "the devil's game". But its a church program, so no one else thinks its very funny when I say it.

Anyway, do you have any tips on how we can change the game so that it doesn't turn kids into monsters. The folks here want to ban the game. What do you think? - Evan T. 5/3/2009

The biggest problem that we face on the playground, at any time and under any situation, is the lack of structure and supervision. Without it our duck-duck-goose turns into slap-slap-punch and the fattest monkeys never get out of the middle.

Four square is one of those games that can be open to infinite interpretation. One of the most exciting elements of the game is that the rules can be bent, broken and born anew by any kid that gets to the fourth square. Everyone wants the chance to make their opponents do humiliating things like howl like a monkey after each hit or open up the rules to allow the use of the one tactic that will render them invincible.

More so, a lot of fighting a breaks out because the rules are so fuzzy. Was that an over hand hit? Was the serve too fast? And then there are kids that are just good at arguing about the rules rather than playing by them. And somehow they always make it to four square.

So, Evan, what you can do it reduce the holy war on the court is seriously tighten up the rules of the game and put limits on what special rules are allowed. Find out what kids fight over and then exorcise it from the court forever. It narrows the path to oblivion and you can steer kids away from it rather than towards it with just a little more structure.

Make the boundaries firm, remove rules that are open to interpretation, don't let kids make stuff up and pass it off as law, and insert a real honest-to-god referee to call the plays. It will make everyone more accountable and they can even direct their hatred at the ref instead of at each other.

A few of these steps and I bet you see an improvement on the court and you won't have to ban anything from the playground.


I teach gym and recess to 4-8 year olds. I understand the impulse to ban a game that is creating so much conflict on the playground. However, Four Square is such a great game, and it can be so much fun, that it would be a shame to ban is forever. I agree with Sean's recommendations to tighten the rules. I would have the kids who play regularly be a part of that conversation so that they can buy into the rules. Also, they may have a rule that for them is tried and true that you may not know about, so if you try to change it, without even intending to, you could just end up causing more conflict.

Once the rules of the game are established, also go over expectations for behavior- sportsmanship and the "spirit of the game". Then, when you're ref-ing the game, if a kid (or 2 or 3) are not behaving themselves, give them a warning to let them know that they have one more chance to fix their behavior or attitude, or they will loose Four Square privilages for a the rest of the day (or a week if they're repeat offenders). If they fix their behavior, great, if they don't then they have soem time to think about it. This way, the other kids get a break from the explosive behavior and the angry kid has some motivation to fix his behavior. It also means that those kids who can play well together, still get to play. It is important, though, to have ref there to make calls, ask for do-overs if there are conflicting opinions or call for "challenge" between two people.

Have fun!