The Leader's Handbook

The Leader's Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun, Games, Play, and Positive Interaction

Co-authored by Bill Michaelis and John M. O’Connell, The Leader’s Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun, Games, Play, and Positive Interaction was published in 2013 by Venture Publishing. Indicated as a second edition, it is an updated version of their original book, The Game and Play Leaders Handbook: Facilitating Fun and Positive Interaction, published in 2003. The book is a practical guide for play leaders geared toward training them to manage all age groups and effectively lead games play and team-building activities.

The authors each have over 35 years of play leadership experience. Bill Michaelis is Professor Emeritus, former Graduate Coordinator, and former Chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Francisco State University. He has presented over 2,000 keynote addresses, workshops, and events around the world supporting and inspiring those who work with children, youth, and families to promote play activity, teambuilding, wellness, and conflict resolution. He is the co-owner and director of Children-Together,com, an international play event and leadership training organization. John O’Connell is director of Interplay Network, an organization development firm specializing in process facilitation, leadership, team development, and conflict resolution. Both Bill and John were actively involved in the New Games Foundation, which conducted community play events in the 1970s and 1980s, where they attribute much of their early training.

The focus of the book is on leadership, particularly on facilitating play and leading games, but the authors believe that the principles and concepts given can be applied broadly to other situations that require leadership. Their basic premise is that play is important for individual wellbeing, it builds community, facilitates understanding and teamwork, and to be effective, it must be fun. Although games are included in the book, the emphasis is on learning to guide players through the process of play.

Chapter 1 – On Playing On Purpose explores the definition and value of play. The authors describe play as “an attitude of lightness, frivolity without being frivolous, process, transformation, serendipity, open-endedness, creativity, foolishness, and fun.”1  They describe play as an attitude or spirit that communicates the freedom and joy of doing what a person wants to do. To illustrate the importance of play for developmental and health benefits for all they list the following:

  • Complex learning
  • Skill development
  • Social learning
  • Maintaining a sense of wonder
  • Fantasy, imagination, and creativity
  • An exercise of our deepest levels of freedom and choice
  • Self-esteem
  • The ability to change, to risk, to flex, to adapt, to roll with the punches in a rapidly changing world
  • A contribution to stress reduction, to mental and physical health, and a sense of balance in our lives
  • Laughter and play as healing tools
  • High-tech and high-touch
  • Problem-solving initiative skills
  • A sense of community and connection

They suggest many forms and contexts that provide potential play possibilities and note that facilitating play experiences using games contain five elements: the players, the game, the setting, the situation, and the leader.

Chapter 2 – The Fundamentals of Play Leadership lists the most important factors in play leadership and facilitation: enthusiasm, safety, and empowering others. The enthusiasm of the play leader is key to creating playfulness in the group, but the individuals also must feel safe participating in the activity both physically and psychologically. If there is a fear of being hurt physically in a risky situation or emotionally by being ridiculed or rejected by others, play is hindered. Empowering the group to be aware of safety issues can create an atmosphere of players pulling together for the enjoyment of all.

Chapter 3 – Getting It Going describes the steps to lead a game. The group must be encouraged to be a caring play community with the goals of common interest, common good, and common fun, where they can play well together. There are four important steps to getting a game going: purpose, planning, preparation, and presentation. Adding to these steps when leading a game is the acronym DDADA: describe, demonstrate, ask for questions, do it, and adapt it.

Chapter 3.5 – The Flow Imperative describes flow as a state of high enjoyment, which occurs between boredom and anxiety in meeting the challenge of the game. If the players’ ability clearly exceeds the challenge, there will be boredom. If the challenge exceeds their ability, there will be anxiety. Fine-tuning the game is the play leader’s responsibility to facilitate flow for a successful play session.

Chapter 4 – Keeping It Going (Rollin’ on the River) instructs how to continue the play session midgame as the play community takes more ownership of the play and the play leader takes a less visible supporter role. The play leader needs to continue to maintain safety, interest, and enthusiasm while being flexible to make needed changes to facilitate the play session.

Chapter 5 – Ending It All Well discusses the importance of ending the game session on an upbeat note. The play leader needs to be aware of the progress of the game as the enthusiasm begins to wind down and to end the session with an activity that provides a positive feeling of community involvement.

Chapter 6 – On Games distinguishes the role of games with rules as a way of playing and its distinction from free play, which is open-ended play. Three qualities for a good game include attractiveness, accessibility, and a combination of simplicity with easily understood rules and complexity with the possibility of strategies and variations of the game. The elements of a game and ways to change the game with variation, combination, adaptation, and innovation are discussed.

Chapter 7 – Leading (& Orchestrating) Events, or, “The Big Game” suggests how to transition a play session to incorporate hundreds of people in an event. Planning, preparation, and publicity are needed on a bigger scale to hold a large event. Coordinating multiple play leaders to work with a large crowd is important to have things flow smoothly.

Chapter 8 – Some Advanced Leadership Skills gives instruction in challenging play leaders to further hone their skills and understanding with a re-emphasis on emotional/psychological safety, empowerment, the art of play leadership, and situational leadership.

Chapter 8 ½* – Positive Discipline: An Approach to Behavior Guidance explores the approaches needed when working with children who need guidance to play within boundaries. Their three-pronged approach to discipline involves a broad-based approach to creating positive behavior; general principles of discipline; and what to do when all else fails. Recognizing that children need love, liberty, limits, and people to listen to them, the authors also included these key elements for children to achieve self-esteem and happiness: achievement, respect, responsibility, resourcefulness, freedom, and fun. Building a play session with these elements in mind along with positive discipline principles of caring, consistency, communication, choices, and consequences will generally create positive experiences.

Chapter 9 – A Bigger Bag of Tricks contains lists of proven hints and strategies in working with groups. More games are given as well as a suggested list of equipment to use with play sessions.

Chapter 10 – How to Get Better suggests ongoing evaluation as critical to continued professional development.

Chapter 11 – On the Importance of Being a Playmaker points out the significant contributions to society made by playmakers.

The book closes with Chapter 12 – Resources, Connections, and Beyond (The Bigger Picture). This chapter includes a list of suggested settings for play leadership as well as resources, such as catalogs, magazines, newsletters, books, articles, organizations, networks, and websites.

  • 1. Michaelis, Bill and John O,Connell. The Leader’s Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun,Games, Play, and Positive Interaction. State College, PA: Venture Publishing. 2013. p. 3.