How Adults Can Help Foster Participation in Group Activities

Outcome: By the end of this lesson, you will have read through scenarios and stories that highlight common situations that arise when playing group games with kids with and without disabilities. By reading these scenarios you will learn example strategies and language you could use in a similar situation.

Lesson Length : 30 minutes


  1. Read the child scenarios for promoting participation.
  2. Answer Pause & Reflect Questions for each scenario 


There are many things adults or older kids can do to help all kids in a group feel excited and able to participate in group games and activities. 

The following scenarios and stories highlight common situations that arise when playing group games and provide strategies and language for how to respond to them.

Scenario 1

A child wants to play the group games but doesn’t know how to join the group

To help a child that wants to play but does know how to join the group, have an adult or support person such as a Junior Counselor  go up to the child and say, “Want to play the game with me?” The child may respond, “no.” Instead of taking this response at face value, continue to investigate. Ask, “Can you tell me more about why you don’t want to play?” The child may be able to give you a verbal response back and they may not. They may also feel shy and hesitant to bring up a reason. This is a great opportunity for the adult to say something like, “Have you played this game before? Was it challenging for you?” Or, just start explaining how the game works. A child who was too shy to ask the rules now has them available, without having to come forth and ask for them to be explained.



How do you think it would feel to withdraw or feel excluded from a group experience the rest of your peers are participating in?



How does it feel to be included? Planned for? Or supported through a new or challenging experience?

Scenario 2

A child wanders away before the game starts

To help a child who wanders off, start with the same strategy. Wandering could be a result of many things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to play. Consider this scenario:           

Meet Nicholas.  He is a bright eight-year-old boy with autism who also is nonverbal. He enjoys exploring the garden at his own pace and has the mind of an engineer. He is always problem solving and testing things out to see what fits where and how fast he can make something go. He often spends most of his day alone wandering the garden. Because his default is to wander and spend time on his own it can be easy to assume that, “Nicholas doesn’t like groups, so he probably won’t want to participate in our game.” In fact, Nicholas does enjoy time in groups, he just needs a little more help to be successful in a group game.

Situation A

 The group is all at circle time. Nicholas is part of the group and actively participating in the songs. Then the camp director announces that the group will all play a group game and proceeds to give a series of instructions. Kids start to move around and get ready for the game. Meanwhile, it becomes unclear to Nicholas what is going on and he gathers that circle time must be over and wanders off. Other counselors see him wander off but let it happen because “That’s what he always does.” The group proceeds to play a game. A counselor leaves the group to check on Nicholas to make sure he is safe. While the rest of the group is running, laughing, playing together, and making friends, Nicholas is off by himself either unaware that the game is happening or aware but unsure how to join, especially now that the game has already started. The other kids know that Nicholas is part of the group from seeing him at circle time. However, since Nicholas wanders away from the group it is unlikely the other kids think of him as a friend because they haven’t shared a playful experience together. The counselors  mistakenly think that he prefers to be alone, so he then spends the rest of his similar situations.

Situation B

The group is all at circle time. Nicholas is part of the group and actively participating in the songs. Then the camp director announces that the group will all play a group game. 

Before giving a long series of instructions the camp director gives one clear instruction “Okay everyone we are going to play a game that I know everyone can play! On the count of three everyone can make their way to the yellow line.” The Camp Director has talked with counselors beforehand and given them strategies for helping Nicholas join.. 

Before Nicholas has the opportunity to wander off and while the other kids are moving the yellow line, a counselor approaches him and says “Nicholas! Come play “What Time is it, Mr. Fox? with me!” She takes a hold of his hand, and gently guides him over to the yellow line with the other kids. Nicholas, happy to have been noticed and having someone help him with the transition, begins to smile and bounce his way to the line. 

While the camp director is explaining the rules of the game the counselor stays with Nicholas, reminding him of what they are doing by saying, “Nicholas stays with me. We are about to start the game!” and “Are you ready? It is going to be so fun!” Once the game starts the counselor continues to hold Nicholas’s hand and when the rest of the kids run they run hand-in-hand for the duration of the game. Nicholas is running, laughing, playing, and making friends with the other campers. He feels like he belongs – he is part of the group and the other kids see him that way too.

Because he has a successful experience with the group early in the day, the rest of the day goes smoothly and he moves back and forth from time alone to time with the group. Later in the day he is participating in the group art activity and playing Legos with his new friend, Langston.



What differences do you see between the two situations?



Making an experience more inclusive can be a subtle process. What strategies did the Camp Director use in the second scenario to help Nicholas participate?


Group Experience

This picture is taken during a different group experience, a rocket launch. Notice in this picture that Nicholas is participating in the group with the help of a camp counselor holding his hands. (He is the second kid from the left with a baseball hat on). Then later in the day getting 1-1 time with another counselor to learn more about the rockets. 

Scenario 3

A child wants to participate but is nervous about participating in the same way as the other children or is not able to participate in the same way as the rest of the group.

Again, start by talking with the child and finding a way for them to participate in a meaningful way. Try to figure out what it is that they don’t like about the game. Do they not like to be tagged? Do they have a hard time running? Do they need to be in control of the game for it to be fun?

At the PlayGarden we have a camper who loves group games; his name is Langston. Once again, we were playing ‘What Time is It, Mr. Fox?’, a game nearly every child seems to love because it includes counting, slow progression, and then a sudden change in events. Langston loves to be the fox, as do most of the other kids. If he can’t be the fox, he often removes himself after the first round. However, the camp director knew that Langston liked telling stories and so she suggested that he be the narrator of the game. He quickly latched onto the idea and said, “Like David Attenborough!” and then got busy positioning himself so that he could narrate the ten rounds of the game. Not only did he love it, but the game grew and evolved and became more interesting for the rest of the kids as well.



Think of a time you had a child who wanted to play but in a different way than the rest of the group. What did you do or not do to help this child participate?



What are common games you play at your organization? What are alternatives roles kids could take on in those various games that would encourage greater participation from all kids? 


Scenario 4

A child who didn’t even know the game was happening and now is missing out on the group experience.

Bring them over to the group and have them observe around first. While they are observing, explain the game to them and any rules the group has already established. Then be their “bridge” into the play. You don’t want to embarrass the child who is joining in by saying something like” Hey everyone, stop, _______ wants to join in.” Instead, join with the child at a natural point. You can say something like, “Oh you all look like you’re having so much fun! Lee and I are going to join you!” Again, kids want to share in the joy of playing a game. So long as the addition of a “player” is framed positively, kids will be willing to roll with the addition.



Did any of the scenarios or stories about participation remind you of experiences you’ve had with your own child or children you work with?



What strategy presented here will you try the next time you are facilitating a group experience with kids?