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The importance of making your sessions fun and engaging for 5–12 year olds | Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) | ConnectedCoaches

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The importance of making your sessions fun and engaging for 5–12 year olds

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fun and engaging

  • Don’t give a child a scaled-down adult version of a session.
  • Be creative in your planning but equally, make use of the children’s creativity too. They are more creative than adults.
  • A fun activity for one child may be boring to another. Look, learn and value their feedback.
  • Fun and competition go hand in hand but coaches must exercise caution, with primary schools and grass-roots clubs maybe having different philosophies.
  • Avoid queues at all costs; learn children’s names; silence isn’t golden.
  • Research has shown there is a correlation between children being out of breath and having fun. 

Rules aren’t meant to be broken – unless you are talking certain rules of English grammar. Generally, though, they exist for good reason. 

In a sporting context, a game without rules will degenerate into utter confusion. 

There is one rule (or is it three?) devised by Professor Richard Bailey that Multi-skills coaches hold particularly dear. In his blog for sports coach UK (What is Developmentally Appropriate Sport), he writes: 

  1. Children are not mini-adults.
  2. Children are not mini-adults.
  3. Children are not mini-adults. 

Echoes here of the famous line in the film Fight Club, when Tyler Durden explains to his brethren: ‘The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.’

The repetition serves to emphasise the fundamental importance of the rule.

OK, Professor Bailey was stating points rather than rules when he wrote his three main principles for early-years coaches, but grant me some poetic licence here.

Bailey writes that 'the collective wisdom from decades of research into children and sport can be summarised in [those] three points.’ 

Point one relates to children’s minds and bodies working differently to adults’ (don’t push a child as intensely).

Point two concerns the importance of developing fundamental movement skills in 5-12 year olds (specialised motor skills can be developed over time). 

And point three describes the need to make sessions fun as, unlike adults, that is the main reason why children participate in sport. 

Break those rules as a coach, and treat children the same as adults, and you will inevitably, and probably rather quickly, find you have no children left to coach. 

Silly is good 

David Turner is UK Coaching's (formerly sports coach UK) Development Lead Officer for Children, Schools and Safeguarding, and a javelin coach on the England Athletics National Coach Development Programme. He launches into the question of how to make sessions fun and engaging for 5-12 year olds by quoting Professor Bailey. 

‘Children are not mini-adults. That sums it up brilliantly and says everything you need it to. Don’t give a child a scaled-down adult version of a session,’ he says. 

‘We need to give kids the hook, and if we don’t give them the hook straight away, then they will either go and try a different sport or they will go and do something completely different, like sitting in front of a computer. 

‘At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be trying to turn seven year olds, for example, into a hockey player or a netballer or a footballer. We should be trying to develop those fundamental movement skills first of all and then those interchangeable sports skills that will hopefully give them a foundation for when they decide to take up different sports later on.’ 

But therein lies the problem. How do you combine the fun element with essential Multi-skills training? If you deprive children of access to the traditional tools of the trade, such as footballs and rugby balls, hockey sticks and tennis rackets, asking them instead to distribute 30 markers or collapsible cones around the playground, won’t this trigger disengagement?

‘It’s true that coaching balance, agility and coordination aren’t necessarily fun all the time so you have to find ways of making it fun,’ says David. ‘So instead of doing hopping drills – where the idea is when they land, they are able to balance more effectively, and is the underpinning fundamental movement skill – you get them to throw a ball at each other while you are doing it. Silly things like that work extremely well.’

Don’t lose your balance 

Coaching then is a fine balancing act. Sessions must be fun but also educational. 

And they must be inclusive, encouraging the less dominant players, but without quashing the innate competitive instinct that all children thrive on. 

‘Kids want to have fun and compete with each other,’ he adds. ‘It is an important element. But we have to make sure that the competition is for their sake, it’s what they want, it’s not what the parents want or what the coaches want.’ 

There is a saying, ‘From small acorns do oak trees grow.’ This is pertinent when coaching 5-12 year olds, where it should not be about short-term goals but rather planning for the long term. 

In a nutshell, if coaches fail to correctly identify and align the priorities of children with those of adults, then they are setting themselves up for an almighty fall. 

Equal to the task 

A fun session for one child may be boring to another, but there are some activities that go down a storm every time. 

‘One thing they particularly enjoy is the play warm-up exercises,’ says David. ‘If you take that skill element away from them, where, for example, every kid has to sprint to a cone, turn the cone over and sprint back again, the field is equalised, and it doesn’t matter who the best footballer is. 

‘It is about adding a fun element to a game to make it easier for the children who don’t necessarily have that natural talent in the sporting arena. It’s not an easy one to pull off.’ 

ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Andrew Beaven is a UKCC Level 2 cricket and Level 1 football coach and believes fun and competition go hand in hand. 

He thinks the philosophies of grass-roots, sport-specific club coaches differ from those of PE teachers and Multi-skills coaches, with the former often baulking at the idea of implementing techniques to ‘level the playing field’ or reduce rivalries. The idea of restricting rather than encouraging a competitive edge goes against their principles. 

Beavan, who coaches 7-11 year olds at Oakfield Parkonians Cricket Club in Essex, says: ‘Is competitive sport the answer at this early age? Yes, kids like winning. No, that’s not true – kids like trying to win. They love jeopardy – the chance they might not win. It makes them try even harder. 

‘We don’t do physical forfeits at our club as that makes physical activity look like it’s a punishment, and it’s not. Being able to run around is the fun part. You tell some of the boys to do five press-ups, and they will say, “Oh, can I do 10?”’ 

And that sums up the difference between your typical club coach – who is dealing with children who are there by choice and who crave competition – and a teacher or coach plying his or her trade in a primary school setting. 

‘But even in a general primary school-type environment, I think there should be some element of jeopardy involved, where there is a consequence if you don’t succeed,’ says Andrew. ‘Kids don’t play video games for no reason. They play because there is something at stake; they want to get to the next level. That’s the fun of it. 

‘Those who really don’t want to compete, even they will find something they want to do a little bit better than they did last time. And that’s a win. 

‘That’s where the skill of the coach comes in, to actually define what a “win” is. In cricket, for one person a win might be simply stopping the ball so that it doesn’t roll away from you. For someone else, it might be whacking the ball 40 or 50 yards. It must be difficult if you’ve got 30 schoolkids but they’ve all got their interests, it’s finding them.’ 

fun and engaging session 2

The queue taboo 

When coaches think up strategies for how to engage children in their sessions, a lot of the time they focus on the don’ts as much as the dos. 

Most get a particular bee in their bonnet when it comes to queues. It makes their blood boil when they see a line of children zigzagging through a school hall or on the side of a pitch, waiting to take their turn. 

Andrew agrees that the word queue is taboo in coaching circles. 

‘A session is only fun if everyone is doing something. We often lose sight of that. Fun is having a go, fun is playing games, but actually, quite often, we think the only way to have fun is to have a game. We get that wrong a lot as cricket coaches. 

‘A lot of cricket-based games involve somebody fielding, somebody in a corner waiting their turn and so, actually, playing a game isn’t fun for everybody – especially at that sort of age.’ 

Even traditional net practice sets alarm bells ringing. It is another example of poor time management. And that is before you factor in a net session where a coach takes time out to work on a batsman or bowler’s technique – holding up the whole group in the process. 

‘As far as possible, we don’t allow nets,’ says Andrew, ‘which causes us a lot of grief from parents. But in one session a child might hit and bowl 30 or 40 balls. It means each batsman bats for six minutes and then spends 40 minutes watching someone else bowl. 

‘That’s not fun for anybody. But, hey, it’s tradition, it’s what we do, and some coaches can’t see beyond that.’ 

When it comes to thinking up ideas to keep children engaged, Andrew prefers the term ‘engaged involvement’. And he has a great example of how one exercise can kill three birds with one stone. 

‘I make sure I only have around four people in a group when I put on small-sided games. In one batting game we play, I group them in a very small area and challenge the batsman to hit each fielder in turn – a point for each fielder they hit.  So the batsman and every one of the fielders are all active. For the batsman, it is fun, a real challenge and useful too as, translated into a game environment, it will teach him how to hit small gaps between fielders. In a cricket context, you are practising real skills while having fun.’

Silence isn’t golden 

Besides queues, David has his own list of pet hates, number one on the list being coaches who fail to learn the children’s names: ‘There’s absolutely no excuse for that!’ 

‘There are a few other things I’m not a fan of in coaching,’ he adds. ‘The first is the pre-emptive telling off, where coaches sit the children down and say, “If I see any of this behaviour going on today, this is going to happen.” Can we at least wait for them to do something wrong before we give them a telling-off? 

‘The next thing is waiting for silence. If you’re going to wait for that to happen, you might as well all go home and send them off to do maths instead. It’s not going to happen. 

‘One coach told me that one child in his session would not listen to him unless he was bouncing a ball. If he is able to repeat back what was said to him by bouncing the ball, then let him crack on. He’s happy, it’s just his thing.’ 

David may not treat his children like adults, and push them to the limits of their physical endurance, but that does not mean to say they shouldn’t be made to break sweat! 

Research has shown there is a correlation between children being out of breath and having fun. 

‘Particularly with primary age children, they like to be active, and they have fun by being active and a little bit out of breath,’ says David. 

And there is another major difference between coaching children and adults that David exploits to the utmost in his sessions – a child’s gift for creativity. In scientific testing, children show more activation in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during creative problem-solving compared to adults. 

It is a fact David admits he enjoys using and abusing. 

‘If you ask them to write down 1000 uses for a brick, they’ll think of far more uses than an adult,’ he says. 

‘As a coach, I’ll say things like “Go into the storeroom, you’re allowed to pick five things, and from them I want you to devise a warm-up that includes everyone, gets you active and mobilises the body parts you’ll be using for the rest of the session.” 

‘They look at you and say “What?” because they aren’t used to being given that freedom. We need to empower children to make their own decisions. You might say they are being spoon-fed too much. We’re stamping that creativity out of them by sticking to session plans too rigidly. 

‘I’ve never developed a single session plan in my life that I’ve got through without something needing to change.’ 

fun and engaging session 3


If a man’s best friend is his dog, then a child’s is their iPhone or Xbox. 

It is not just teenagers who are tech savvy; children in single digits can often be found educating their parents on the merits of the latest iOS download, how to set up a Twitter account on their new smartphone or where to locate the free Candy Crush app. 

And these third-generation digital natives expect coaches to play ball and use technology in their coaching methods. 

Not to use this would be looking a gift horse in the mouth as it is a sure-fire hit when it comes to engaging children. The message, though, is to proceed with caution. 

‘There’s two ways to use technology,’ says javelin coach David. ‘One is to help review performance – performance analysis. You could argue that, with children in particular, if you spend too much time doing that, you are slowing things down to the extent it could become the equivalent of a line or a queue. 

‘On the flip side, kids are using technology every single day and they want to know that the coaches are able to use that and are on the same wavelength as them. 

‘In my own experience, kids want to watch a javelin throw back in slow motion seconds after I have filmed them on an iPad.’ 

There are benefits for the coach too, with technology providing an excellent self-reflection tool. 

‘What there also is is the facility to strap a camera on to your forehead and then go back and review the session with a mentor or another coach. You might pick up on the fact you intervened more than you probably should have or said something you shouldn’t have in a certain situation.’ 

Watching a video back might also alert you to which activities the children engaged with most, or which games brought the more reserved children out of their shells. 

Whatever your coaching philosophy, strategies or training drills, when it comes to children who have yet to hit their teens, the message is simple, keep it fun or suffer the consequences. 

Or as Professor Bailey may put it: Coaches should remember these three important rules when planning and holding sessions: 

  1. Make them fun.
  2. Make them fun.
  3. Make them fun.

Andrew’s top tips

  1. Remember it is meant to be fun – for the players and the coach!
  2. Engagement – modify the activities so that everyone gets a turn; if a player ever does have to watch someone else playing or practising, recruit her as a temporary ‘analyst’ or ‘judge’.
  3. Variety – include lots of short games and drills (even if they are repeated), rather than one or two longer activities.
  4. Introduce some ‘jeopardy’ into the session – not ‘if you are out, the game’s over’ or physical forfeits, but there should be consequences, as there will be in competition.
  5. Above all, try to project enthusiasm throughout a session. If the coach wants to play and to practise, so will the players.

What do you think of the points raised in the article? Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment below.

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Comments (5)

Brilliant. For anyone coaching children this child-centred philosophy should be paramount. Remember you are coaching children not coaching football, rugby, hockey, etc!!
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Glad you liked the article Derek and welcome to the ConnectedCoaches community. I'm sure you will find it a useful tool.
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Great article Blake! Readers of this article might also find this infographic showing 20 ways to develop fun coaching sessions for children useful https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/17/coaching-children-ages-5-12/photo/robertkmaaye/believeperform-coaching-children/233
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As economist Jeffrey Sachs says:
"I believe we absolutely should have such bold goals for our country. By 2030 let’s cut the poverty at least by half. By 2030 let’s cut the inequality in our country decisively so it’s like the northern European countries. Not like this god-awful inequality that we have in the United States... that is what’s degrading American society. Not just the technical issues. Not just the rising inequality but this spirit that you’re a winner or you’re a loser. And if you’re a loser get out of the way. That’s Ayn Rand talking. It’s ugly and we’ve had enough of it."

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Fantastic! I hope all kids coaches read this. I love coaching kids. They are open, have sharp minds and just want to have fun. I come to a session well prepared but allow a lot of room for listening to them and let them give the direction - I just keep them under control. Winning is not an issue. Some of my parents disagree but I just refuse to put any importance on winning. My players must grow into the game in a fun way. In future there will be enough time for winning. Now we focus on the fundamentals of rugby, enjoying sport and have fun. Thank you for a very useful post.

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Excellent article - very helpful.

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