game on! (using games to teach habits of mind and build connections in gifted families)
This post is part of the SENG Gifted Parenting Awareness Week blog tour. You can find links to the other posts here:
I’ve often heard GT parents noting sadly that it’s hard for their families to play tabletop games (boardgames, card games, etc) because the kids really struggle (and sometimes the parents do, too!). It’s hard to find games that are fun for family members at very different developmental levels. Games bring up all sorts of emotional experiences that are hard to handle — frustration, failure, gracious competition — and require all sorts of cognitive skills that are hard to develop — flexibility, prioritization, focus, and the like. There is a lot to learn about big mistakes and small mistakes, big frustrations and little frustrations, good fortune and bad fortune, balancing risk and reward, balancing short-term and long-term, balancing cooperation and competition, enumerating and previewing your options, cheating and playing fair, asking for what you need… Games are hard work!
But they’re also an unparalleled opportunity to learn those skills. When I was learning to do play therapy with children, one of the courses was organized around the question, “Why am I being paid big bucks to play Monopoly with a 9-year-old?” You’d be amazed how much is going on inside my head when I’m playing with a kid — I’m constantly tailoring the situation to what the kid can tolerate and what the kid’s actions and the random factors in the game are providing as learning opportunities and how those dovetail with what the kid needs to learn… Part of what makes the play enjoyable for me is the complexity of that process, even while the game may be quite simple.
In our family, we have a lot of fun with games, despite having four people with very different capacities for various aspects of game play (at this writing, Laughing Boy is 6, Little Bird is 12, DH had a respectable chess ranking in high school, and I have somewhat limited working memory which makes me quite bad at detailed, multistep, sequential strategies). So let me tell you a bit about how I think about games and some of the strategies we use in our family to make them fun and to use them as resources for growth.
Check your own competitiveness at the door: If you cannot yet honestly enjoy losing to your own kids, then let me suggest this as a place to do a little self-exploration. Reframe — your goal is to help them get good enough to be a creditable opponent. To do that, you have to keep them in the game long enough to let them learn, and no one will stay in the game if they lose all the time. The goal is to design the game-play experience such that the kids stand a real chance of winning.
Play early and often: You can’t win if you don’t play. If you play a lot, then the sting of any particular defeat can be diluted. If a kid loses and seems upset about it, I almost always propose another round (and often tweak the rules to favor the kid a bit more).
Task analysis: Instead of just thinking about the surface features of a game, start to disassemble it in your mind in terms of what executive-function (or cognitive or academic) skills are required to play it well. Examples: Does it require a lot of previewing? Is it a game that presents a great deal of frustration? Do you have to be patient when it’s not your turn?
Validate feelings: When a kid is upset, don’t tell them they have no right to be. Let them feel how they feel, and help them learn the skills to express those feelings appropriately. You can be upset, but you cannot throw pieces or upset the board.
Teach sportsmanship: We do not tolerate trash-talk or gloating or stuff like that. “How would that make you feel?” is an ineffective strategy for redirection — a kid will typically claim that they wouldn’t mind, and then they’ll draw you into a long and pointless discussion. Better to set the limit and gently ask for a rephrase. If they can’t do that on their own, help them with a script.
Help! Face it, kids aren’t born knowing how to do all of these cognitive or conative things. Telling them that it’s a good idea to do something doesn’t magically confer upon them the ability to do it. It takes guided practice and support. Kids vary widely in how much of this they are willing to take and in what form they like to take it. But I can say with confidence that most kids don’t like to be lectured. My go-to strategies for coaching involve (1) noticing in vivo when they do a little bit of something good and subtly praising it (“Hm, so you’re thinking about other options… good idea…”), (2) asking questions that are likely to evoke certain problem-solving methods (“Hm, so what are you trying to do here…? how else might you approach that?”) (3) empathic and compassionate mirroring of what they are experiencing in real time (“Oh, that is so frustrating when the dice don’t come up the number you need!”) (4) direct coaching in the use of self-soothing strategies (“Oy, that was annoying. Take a few deep breaths before you decide what you’d like to try next.”).
Focus on self-efficacy: Perhaps the most crucial thing GT kids can gain from playing games is development of self-efficacy, the feeling that they can do things that are difficult and worthwhile. Notice the accomplishments yourself, even small ones. Be honest about your praise. Help them see their own change over time.
Choices, choices: As much as possible, give the kids choices in how they will participate. What game should we play? Do you want to be on a team with someone or play by yourself? What special rules should we use? Help them learn to be part of this negotiating process as a valuable set of skills in itself — knowing what you are capable of and asking for the support you need.
Flexible experimentation: Don’t get too tied down to one particular way of playing a particular game. Let the process of experimenting be an ongoing one, something we do together as part of the process of playing. We’re in a joint process of trying to figure out how to make the game fun for all of us.
High variety: Have a lot of choices available as far as what games to play (varied expansion sets are good, too), and actively resist getting stuck in ruts. Engage the kids in the process of choosing new games for the family to buy. Enjoy it when a kid runs into a new game at a friend’s house and asks for a copy for home.
Honesty: Don’t be shy about saying when there is a game that you simply don’t like playing or have only limited tolerance for. If you’re not having fun, then you’re not doing much positive for the kid, either. I had to put my foot down about Mille Bornes about a year ago, when Laughing Boy was constantly asking for it and we hadn’t found a good workaround for some of the overly frustrating aspects of the game. I despise Candyland and have never owned a copy. If you cannot find a way to honestly enjoy a game, then put it away and choose one you can find fun.
Luck vs. skill: I like to use games that involve a balance of luck and skill. The random factors dilute the advantage of old age and treachery, without making things totally random. Plus, adults can model the “oh, man!” experience of being graciously frustrated when things don’t go the way we want. Part of why I don’t own Sorry! is that it is too heavily based in luck, and presents an overwhelming and not very modulatable level of frustration.
Cooperation vs. competition: There are a few games that are pure cooperation, where all of the players are playing against the game itself. Those can certainly be fun and a good way to get kids in the practice of playing without feeling like they have to lose. Kids can get a lot of coaching when they need it. But there are also a lot more games in which the game looks competitive, but in which the optimal strategies require substantial cooperation. The board games coming out of Germany are great for that. For example, in Settlers of Catan, if you aren’t willing to make trades with other players and help them out sometimes, you are unlikely to be able to get the resources you need when you need them yourself. This is a great opportunity for a parent to help a kid in a nonobvious way, by making trades that are favorable for the kid.
Open hands: A lot of games involve a hand of cards or other resources that are kept secret. So try playing open-hand, especially when the kid is learning a new game. You can give much more useful coaching when you can see what the kid’s resources are, and the kid can make many more strategic decisions when they can see yours.
Hidden hands: On the other hand, as it were, if you keep your hand hidden, then you can make choices about when to not do something you could do. I do this all the time in games like Uno or Labyrinth — I might have a card I can play or a way to get a treasure easily, but I might choose to pretend that I don’t. I can make slightly dumb choices, offering the kid an opportunity to capitalize on my “mistakes.”
Teams: Particularly when we’re playing a heavy-duty strategy game other than chess (Laughing Boy is actually the second strongest of the four of us in chess, thanks to high motivation and Fritz and Chesster), or a game which relies too heavily on crystallized knowledge (“stuff you know”) such as Bananagrams, Laughing Boy’s young age makes it very difficult for him to play on his own. So we ask him whether he’d rather play on a team with someone else, and let him choose who to play with. We play other games as 2-on-2, so it’s not always the little guy who “can’t play by himself.”
Handicaps: Some games have handicaps built into their traditions (e.g., golf, chess). For most games, we have to create house rules that even out the task difficulty for different players. But this doesn’t have to be purely an experience of feeling one-down. Rather, the kids get to experience their own needs for handicap changing over time — even if they don’t win all that often, they can see their own progress changing in that way.
Take a mulligan: There are times when we’ll offer (or when I have to ask for myself!) the chance to take back a move because it was pretty foolish. Work that in as part of the regular set of options for modulating difficulty. If a kid overuses the option, then put a limit on it — give him a limited number of mulligan chits and engage him in the process of deciding when to use them and when to save them.
Switch seats: One of the best things DH’s father did when teaching him to play chess was to offer to turn the board around. He’d get the kid totally on the ropes, and then offer to turn the board, giving his son a strong position and giving himself the challenging and interesting problem of, “Okay, now, how do I get out of this?” Sometimes he’d turn the board two or three times. Doing this confuses the notion of who really “won” and who really “lost,” keeps the adult hopping, and focuses the frame around learning to play the position.
Total torque: Use the game materials to create a completely different game, and playtest the game together to learn more about how it works. Recently, I had a kid suggest a shoot-the-moon (win by losing everything, as in hearts) strategy for Mancala, and before long, he and I were collaborating in the process of figuring out if it was possible to have a game in which one person actually got zero stones. It was a very interesting project!
Ride the edge: Pay attention to the kid, not just month by month but moment by moment. Ramp up the difficulty, complexity, and frustration gradually over time, slowly and at a manageable level. Notice when a kid is reliably able to handle things, and then use that as your cue to up the ante just a little bit. Kids need to learn to lose without being crushed by it, so they don’t start trying to avoid the process.
Remember, your number one priority is to keep the kid in the game. Be gentle and curious. Admit your own mistakes. Lose graciously and laugh at yourself. And have fun!