It becomes easier for a child to talk about things that are important to him if you share a common enjoyable experience. A playful attitude and shared enjoyment of a game can win a child’s trust. Your warmth, love and acceptance, coupled with letting him know you are available if he needs to talk, is what will allow him to open up to you when he is hurting inside.
Psychologists use games in this way to build a rapport with children in order to help them. In playing chess with students who exhibited self-defeating attitudes and poor classroom performance, American psychologist Larry Gaines helped students transfer the “never give up” mindset needed to master the game, to their attitudes towards schoolwork. As he helped them recognize negative behavior patterns that were causing them to lose in the game, it opened the door to the children recognizing similar negative behavior patterns that were hindering them from succeeding in school.
In an article written in “Adolescent Psychiatry” in 2000, Dr. Gaines observed that the students he worked with, “showed an increased willingness to change after becoming aware of hidden aspects of their behavioral styles” that caused them to do poorly in both chess and school. He credited this change to “the result of their having a new type of adult available-someone enthusiastic and playful.”
A key element of success in his game therapy was the gracious acceptance Dr. Gains showed when the children beat him at the game. He respected and acknowledged their skills while being willing to teach his own. He found if, “rather than humiliate them – in reaction to the fear of losing to them – the adult was willing to share his skills” a willingness to change was triggered in the students. By warning children of potentially bad moves in a game, and teaching them how to be better players, he earned their trust and admiration.
Dealing with Winning and Loss
Winning is an enjoyable experience for any child, but loss also teaches us much. Being able to handle disappointment in life is a major part of emotional stability. Games can be used as a type of “dress rehearsal” of normal life, to prepare children for the real thing.
A simple response to use when helping a child deal with defeat is “It’s not easy to lose, but it’s fun to play. Having fun together is even more important than winning.” You have probably encountered adults who failed to master this principle in life. Those unhappy folks deal with setbacks and defeat by becoming angry, sullen, or slumping into despair. Learning to accept loss without becoming overwhelmed with discouragement is a necessary part of life. Competitive games can help prepare children to develop this emotional life skill.
To be able to participate in organized games, children must learn to control their emotions and negative impulses. Competitive games involve rules, which children generally accept. If they play well and stick to the rules, they have a fair chance to win. If not, they sit out the game and learn that their actions bear consequences. For children who have great difficulty with self-control, games can be an incentive towards better behavior. They can be taught to verbalize their emotions in a constructive way, rather than disrupting the game by acting out, and thus losing the opportunity to participate.
Cheating and Competitiveness
Dr. Berlin cautioned adults conducting therapeutic play in regards to competitiveness and cheating. If you are playing along with the children, don’t let them win on purpose, or allow them to cheat, and certainly don’t cheat yourself. Playing fair shows respect for each person. If you, an adult, are obviously faster or stronger you can handicap yourself in order to make things fair, such as letting them have a head start in a race, or giving them extra points. This demonstrates to them that playing a fair game is more fun than winning.
Your attitude towards winning is important, because the children will model themselves after your example. If you get so caught up in the game that you give in to the urge to become competitive, and winning becomes the all-encompassing goal, you risk derailing your therapeutic play session. While it is helpful to genuinely enjoy playing, and winning is part of the fun, it will quickly become counterproductive if you let a competitive streak gets the better of you. Have fun yourself, but remember the goal is to teach the children how to communicate effectively, while building their trust and confidence through the shared enjoyment of a game.
Establishing Guidelines for Conduct : Consideration and Kindness
Play sessions are fun, and children should be encouraged to laugh and have a good time with each other. There is a difference however, between laughing with someone and laughing at them. When conducting therapeutic play sessions you will need to be on the lookout for hurtful peer interaction. Unfortunately, young people can at times be brutal in the treatment of their peers, especially with those who are perceived to be weaker, less attractive or less intelligent.
Every human being is gifted in some special and unique way, yet these qualities often go undetected, masked by low self-esteem or flawed physical appearance. Love and acceptance is the rich soil that nurtures our hidden qualities to fruition. Negative peer pressure, however, can stamp out the green shoot of promise in a child’s life before it ever has a chance to bloom.
Children need to be protected from ridicule by other students, and if bullying or mocking takes place, the adult supervising the game session should be swift to respond. Psychologist James Dobson puts forth these principles in his book, “Hide or Seek: Building Self-Esteen in Your Child” (1999). He recounts the sad story of Hazel, a homely and shy pre-adolescent girl being cruelly mocked and teased by the boys in her class during organized games. The teacher chose to ignore the situation and left the girl to fend for herself.
Dr. Dobson disagreed with such a tactic, first by suggesting “the embarrassment could have been prevented by discussing the feelings of others from the first day of school. But if the conflict occurred as described, with Hazel’s ego suddenly shredded for everyone to see, I would have thrown the full weight of my authority & respect on her side of the battle.”
Intervening in such situations is necessary because vulnerable children need protection, and aggressive children need boundaries and discipline. Ridicule hurts. Sometimes the offending children are oblivious to the pain they are causing while caught up in the “fun” of the moment. At other times their actions are calculated and intentional. Either way, the behavior should be stopped.
Dr. Dobson recommends establishing rules of behavior that include laughing together at things that are funny, but not by making another person feel badly. To teach children to live by the rule of treating others in the way we wish to be treated, it is important that the teacher, as a role model, never intentionally embarrass or ridicule the children in the class. Shaming and scorning a student may quiet a rambunctious youngster, but it will backfire if you then expect him to handle his peers with respect. By respecting the dignity of each child, the teacher sets an example he can expect his students to uphold.
The teacher’s authority and control of the classroom is crucial, and this can be achieved by having clearly defined rules of conduct laid out for the students. Discuss together as a group how it feels to be ridiculed or mocked, and why such behavior is not acceptable. When clear rules of conduct are laid down, children feel protected, as they know their own rights will not be violated.
According to Dobson, “By defending the least popular child in the room, the teacher is demonstrating, 1) That he has no “pets”; 2) That he respects everyone; 3) That he will fight for anyone who is being treated unjustly. Those are three virtues which children value highly, and which contribute to mental health & peace of mind.”