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How to play capture the flag: Teach your kids the rules

Capture the flag is a staple for kids’ camps and the Boy Scouts, as well as a popular game for neighborhood kids to play, especially in nice weather. Its origins date back to the battlefields of the Civil War. Color guards were given the serious duty of protecting a regiment’s flag. A battle concluded when one side gained possession of the other side’s flag. The Medal of Honor was awarded to the soldiers who captured the opposition’s flag.

Capture the flag has evolved into a fun, competitive game ideal for the outdoors and groups of kids, as well as a go-to game at summer day camps and sleepaway camps. If need to entertain a group of kids or even teens, you need to know the rules to teach them. Here’s how to play capture the flag.

Red flag for a game of capture the flag
Kostsov / Shutterstock

Where to play

Capture the flag is the perfect outside game. It can be played indoors, but most homes don’t have enough space, and who wants kids running all over the house?

How many players?

You can play capture the flag with two players, but the game is best with groups, which is why it’s a camp and scout favorite.

Capture the flag rules

Define the territories

Before beginning, the participants need to set the boundaries and outline two territories, as well as a place for captured opponents to hang out when caught. To avoid arguments, make sure all the players know where the boundaries between the two territories are.

Set the teams

Divide up the participants into two teams. Try to keep the size and strength of the teams even. You don’t want all young kids on one team if the ages are mixed or all the sporty kids grouped together.

Hide the flag

Once the territories and boundaries of the teams are set, each team must hide its flag. Typically, the flag is located in or around a team’s base. A flag cannot be completely hidden from view. At least some part of the flag must be visible to the opposing team.

Do you have to use a flag?

The game is called capture the flag, but if there aren’t any flags on hand you can improvise. Bandanas or baby blankets work, too.

Group of children running in capture the flag in a park
Andrey Norenko / Shutterstock

Let’s go!

When the whistle sounds or someone yells “Start” or “Go,” the game is on.

Capture the flag

The object of the game is to capture the other team’s flag and bring it back to friendly territory without being tagged. The winning team is the one who successfully gains possession of the other team’s flag.

What happens if a player is tagged?

If a player enters the other team’s territory, they can be captured. Some forms of capture the flag have a designated “jail” area for captured players. Other forms have tagged players stand frozen. Either way, captured players can return to the game when they are rescued or tagged by their own teammates. Once given a rescue tag, a player has a free pass back to safe territory.

If the flag is captured

In order to win, one team must bring the flag back to its territory without being tagged. If tagged while in possession of the other team’s flag, the flag must be dropped to the ground where the player was tagged. The person is frozen or sent to “jail,” and the game continues with the flag in the new spot. The flag doesn’t get returned to its original hiding place.

How do you tell the teams apart?

Some capture the flag players are quite serious, and teams are set apart from one another by colors. Having team members wear the same color bandana, bracelet, or shirt is another way to distinguish teams. If the game is being played at a party, colored hats or bandanas for each team can be a favor.

Capture the flag at night

Capture the flag is typically a day game, played during camp sleepovers or stay-late activities because it’s a great post-dinner game with groups of kids. Tweens and teens also enjoy a game of capture the flag as do adults, albeit during a round of paintball. When playing the game at night, it’s a good idea for the participants to carry small flashlights to avoid accidents. Commercial versions of capture the flag are available. Some include flags and bases that light up.

Capture the flag can get very competitive, especially at camp where bragging rights are at stake. In a world where kids and teens spend a lot of time on electronic devices, the game is ideal for getting kids outside and running around. The game also involves teamwork and strategy.

Winning capture the flag often encourages kids to come together as a team and think outside of the box, which is an important life skill. Some businesses and sports franchises use capture the flag as a team-building exercise. So, for your next family reunion, outdoor birthday party, or when the backyard is full of kids, organize a game of capture the flag. It’s a crowd-pleaser, which is why the game has stood the test of time.

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Dawn Miller
Dawn Miller began her professional life as an elementary school teacher before returning to her first love, writing. In…
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