Natural Life Magazine

Junkyard Sports

Junkyard Sports
By Bernie De Koven
“Real” sports and games played with the “wrong” equipment for the “right reasons”

Personal involvement, making it up as you go along, recycled materials instead of expensive equipment, active participation by a diverse community, physical and psychological safety, creativity, and most of all, the opportunity to create and share fun. Those are the components of what I call “Junkyard Sports.”

The concept is as ancient as sport itself. Earlier in the 20th century, this idea was demonstrated on the streets, sidewalks, vacant lots and backyards of most cities, when games like stickball, box ball and pie-tin Frisbee could be found virtually everywhere there were kids. Even today, when so many kids spend their precious play time in front of the television or in organized league sports, you’ll find kids playing basketball with a trash can and a paper wad, or playing baseball with a frying pan bat and a ball of rolled-up socks. Playful minds find inspiration in the limitations of equipment, environment, and physical abilities.

“One of the most radical of the implications of Junkyard Sports is the notion that regardless of what gets invented or played or who wins, the only thing that really counts is how much fun it is for everyone.”
Junkyard Sports are so inviting because they are based on sports that everyone knows. The inventiveness begins when people play with sports equipment that has nothing to do with how the a sport is supposed to be played, and then they mix this sports with other sports. That is the spark that ignites the imagination. Junkyard Sports are also played with as diverse a group of players as are available – young and old, novices and experts, those with and without disabilities – to create a sport that is truly inclusive. There is no need to adapt a sport for a specific population when the very population that will be playing it is creating it. There is no reason to worry about how willing people will be to play a sport when the sport they are playing is their own.

Junkyard Sports are a rich, exciting and growing resource for physical activities that will work in any environment and with any player. The activities can take anywhere from a half hour to a half day. Kids will use their bodies and minds to develop and exercise their capacity for play, to develop social skills and to learn from and with each other. They will design and experiment and play as a team.

The process of invention in Junkyard Sports develops the whole player – body, mind, community, and environment. In the process of developing a new, informal, just-for-fun sport, players combine physical education with cognitive skill development and socialization. Junkyard Sports are invitations to play and opportunities to transcend differences in physical abilities, social status, gender and age.

There’s a big difference between a sport that you learn and a sport that you make up. Sports that you learn, despite their numerous benefits, have a way of separating people. There are those who are good enough, and those who aren’t. Sports set the bar, creating a challenge that its players rise to meet. But when you’re making up a new sport, the question isn’t so much about whether you are good enough to play it. It’s about whether the sport is good enough to make you want to play.

Junkyard sports, then, make it possible for anyone to play with anyone else. As long as they’re making up the sport together, they’ll find a way to play together. From the perspective of a recreation or youth leader, this makes junkyard sports an ideal vehicle for serving the community. As a class project or as an event, the invention of a new Junkyard Sport is an opportunity for integration and celebration.

One of the most radical of the implications of Junkyard Sports is the notion that regardless of what gets invented or played or who wins, the only thing that really counts is how much fun it is for everyone. As a criterion for success, especially for those who need to answer to many objectives of educational and public programming, the “fun for everyone” goal can be surprisingly difficult to communicate and defend. Most sport programs are funded by organizations that measure success in terms of the development of very specific athletic competencies – a belief shared by the majority of the people served by these programs. Try telling parents who sent their kids to soccer camp that, although their kids lost almost every game they played and didn’t show any particular athletic skill, they succeeded because they had a lot of fun.  

The “sports for the fun of it” concept was developed specifically for those people who are not served by sport clubs and competitions – the people for whom participation, and not competition, is the goal. It was developed because we have all begun to recognize that this is a far wider audience, with perhaps even more telling needs than the audiences served by traditional sport programs.

Like all the sports in my collection, basketball has a strong “street” tradition. You find basketball hoops on playgrounds, driveways, backyards, and alleys, as well as on the wall in an office and attached to a trash can. Basketball could very well be your ideal junkyard-able sport not only because it’s ubiquitous but also because it’s so easily identified. Here is one example.

All-Terrain Basketball

Each team has one ball, and only the players who have the ball can move their feet. Players score two points every time they get the ball through the opponent’s goal. The team with the higher score at the end of 20 minutes wins. Players with possession of the ball can take up to three steps and have the option of shooting or passing.

Two teams of three to seven players per team.

Define a space, no larger than 50 by 100 feet, that includes as many different kinds of terrain as you can find. You can mix indoor and outdoor spaces. The space should not be flat or regular. It should include stairs and doorways, parking lots and lawns. Tables, chairs, and other obstacles should be within the space. The only requirements are that the space be free of passers-by and breakable objects. Place a basket or similar target at either end of the space. Mark the borders.

Two baskets or targets (hula hoops, trashcans, basketball hoops, card-board cartons – whatever the ball can pass through)
Tape, chalk, ribbon, toilet paper – anything to mark the boundaries
Two or more objects that are easy to throw and catch

Both teams position themselves throughout the playing area. One player from each team has a ball.

With two balls in motion, it is possible that someone might get hit. But, because this game doesn’t involve running, it is unlikely that safety will be a concern.

Coaching Tips
Encourage players to pass the ball to each other so that they can get in the optimal position, defensively and offensively.

Excerpted from Junkyard Sports by Bernie De Koven, with permission of Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. Copyright 2005. Illustrator Bob Gregson.

Bernie De Koven’s book Junkyard Sports describes a radically new, paradigm-busting concept for athletic events – one that took him 40 years in theater, education, game design and group facilitation to develop. His lifelong belief that things can be made more fun led him to develop and implement new ways of playing, new games for groups of all ages and sizes, from singles, couples and families to schools, communities and cities, and, most recently, to the idea of “Junkyard Sports.” His Interplay Curriculum, a comprehensive program in self-esteem and social skills based on over 1000 children’s games, was used in classrooms and playgrounds throughout the city of Philadelphia. For the Philadelphia Bicentennial, he designed and orchestrated Playday on the Parkway, a community games event involving hundreds of thousands of celebrants. He established The Games Preserve, a retreat center where teachers, therapists and recreators can conduct in-depth investigations of games and play. In his book The Well Played Game (Writers Club Press, 2002), he voiced a philosophy of “healthy competition” that formed the core teachings of the New Games Foundation. He became co-director of the foundation, and developed internationally successful programs in facilitating collaborative games, community events and business meetings. He also designed award-winning games for Ideal Toy Company, Children’s Television Workshop, CBS Software and Mattel Toys. His latest book is A Playful Path (2013). Learn More at


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