Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Child’s Play Magazine. She is also the author of twelve books, some of which are about self-directed learning, for which she has been an advocate for over forty years. Learn more about her work on her website at www.WendyPriesnitz.com.
So you decide to sit down with your family for a pleasant evening of fun and companionship playing Scrabble. An hour or so later, nobody is speaking to each other and you wonder where the initial social impulse went! Or dad and son sit down to a game of Monopoly, which dad easily wins; his son is crestfallen and slinks away to bed, leaving dad wondering if he should have slacked off and let his son win.
We play board games because we want to do something together. How ironic then that, in most games at least, we spend all our efforts trying to bankrupt someone, destroy their armies, or get rid of one another! We soon learn how to pick on the other person’s weaknesses in order to win the game. But we’re spending time together, and isn’t that what’s important? And don’t kids need to learn to compete or at least be challenged as preparation for success in the “real world”?
The Problem With Competition
One of the problems with playing competitive games with our kids is the conundrum we create: We can either, in effect, deceive the child about our abilities and “let” her win, or we can use our full abilities and have an unfair advantage over her. Neither seems to make any sense, especially if you try not to lie to your child in other situations.
Competition also can lead to cheating. We see examples that range from doping in professional sport, to sharing test questions in school, to fudging test results. In the high pressure world of standardized test scores being used to grade not only students but teachers and schools (sometimes with the teachers’ jobs at stake), it’s not surprising that a lot of cheating goes on in school systems.
"Research going back to the early 1970s has found that, in group educational settings, co-operation is a more effective tool than competition, probably because competition creates anxiety and can dampen motivation."
Researchers have found that competition can have “positive results” when used as a motivational technique in the classroom – meaning that when students compete with each other to get better test scores, overall scores increase. However, getting a good mark on a test doesn’t necessarily mean the material has been learned, cheating or not. In fact, research going back to the early 1970s has found that, in group educational settings, co-operation is a more effective tool than competition, probably because competition creates anxiety and can dampen motivation.
In spite of all the negatives, parents often allow their own competitive anxiety to influence their children. We all know parents who push their children to succeed academically in aid of securing a spot in university and ultimately a well-paying job. And I’ve seen that goal at work when families are simply playing games together. Some parents also have a huge ego involvement in their kids’ progress, according to psychology professor and author Wendy Grolnick. While some children and young people turn off under such pressure, others end up with anxiety-triggered illnesses. Grolnick’s message to competitive parents is to nurture their children’s autonomy and confidence in their own abilities. And that leads me to wonder if we can turn down the temperature when we play games with our kids.
The Co-operative Alternative
Co-operative games inventor Jim Deacove and his family have been manufacturing the Family Pastimes line of cooperative games in Canada since 1972. Deacove designs his games to allow people of different ages and abilities to play side by side. In these games, someone young and little can play with others older and bigger and not worry about being wiped out on an unfair playing field.
Deacove is quick to assert that his games don’t protect children from not making it to the summit or completing the space voyage. “Our games are designed to offer realistic challenges,” he says. But the cultural habit of competing and confronting adversaries runs deep. And he says that some players end up fighting the game itself.
Deacove uses Musical Chairs as an example of how a simple, common party game that’s supposed to be about socializing youngsters really fosters aggression and elimination. It’s not too difficult to imagine new rules so that hugging could replace pushing, and how ability and strength could be used to help rather than to push others out of the way.
"In basic terms, a game is cooperative when all players play together against a common obstacle, rather than against each other."
In basic terms, a game is cooperative when all players play together against a common obstacle, rather than against each other. Participation, challenge, and fun are the goal, rather than competing with and defeating opponents.
There are many games where the rules can be changed to make them more cooperative. As far as active games go, Tag is fairly non-competitive anyway. But there are endless variations that include those who don’t run as fast as others. Try Frozen Tag, where you freeze until you’re rescued if you’re tagged. Or there’s Tag with safe zones where you can’t get tagged – either specific places in the yard, or activities like taking up a certain pretzel-like shape, holding a certain object (requires cooperation to pass it on to others who are in danger of being tagged), or singing a certain song, or just sitting in one place. Kids can think up many more variations on this game.
There are many other group activities that don’t require winners and losers to be fun. I recently saw some kids at a birthday party playing with two hula hoops. Two people put a hoop on their arms, they everyone joined hands in a circle. The object is to send the hoops around the circle in opposite directions without anyone releasing or using their hands. That, of course, means moving bodies through the hoops, which requires cooperation and a lot of giggling.
You can also change the rules for competitive board games to make them more cooperative or at least fairer for different skill levels. We used to play a lot of Scrabble in our family; we’d all show each other our letter tiles and help each other make words, and not bother keeping score, with the game ending when all the tiles were used up or someone got bored. One of our adult daughters recently gave us a variation on Scrabble called Bananagrams, where each player builds his or her own word grid. It’s not really cooperative, but speed wins, not points, so the size of your vocabulary doesn’t matter. Whenever you play against yourself, it’s less competitive in the normal sense, but still challenging.
"When kids play cooperatively, they are developing social interaction and problem-solving skills, as well as communication and sharing ability, trust, empathy, and, well, cooperation."
There are also many video and computer games that feature cooperative play, and some that have a co-op mode. In reality, most computer games allow for collaborative play, and I’ve found that happening naturally even if it’s not specifically intended.
Minecraft – with its tens of millions of online players – allows
players to work together to create wonderful, imaginative things, or
have adventures together. Like most things, it can degenerate into nasty
behavior, depending on the mindset of the players. But it’s a great
platform for cooperation.
Also recommended to me by parents of young gamers are any of the multiplayer role playing games, the LEGO video games, Wizard101, and LittleBigPlanet (LBP). The latter is a puzzle platform video game series published by Sony, with a strong emphasis on user-generated content. The games are all based on the tagline “Play, Create, Share,” and are, I’m told, terrific for fostering creativity and independent thinking.
Whether they are sitting in front of a computer or game console, running around outside, or playing board games, when kids play cooperatively, they are developing social interaction and problem-solving skills, as well as communication and sharing ability, trust, empathy, and, well, cooperation – the ability to work together with, rather than against, others. Cooperative play doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines, sitting around waiting for a chance to play. It doesn’t damage anybody’s self-esteem or confidence, as competitive play can. And it’s a lot of fun for everyone!
Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child by Wendy S. Grolnick, Kathy Seal (Prometheus Books, 2008)
Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities by Josette Luvmour, Sambhava Luvmour (New Society Publishers, 2007)
Cooperative Games and Sports: Joyful Activities for Everyone
by Terry Orlick (Human Kinetics, 2006)
Win-Win Games for All Ages: Co-operative Activities for Building Social Skills by Sambhava Luvmour, Josette Luvmour(New Society Publishers, 2002)
The Spirit of Play: Cooperative Games for All Ages, Sizes, and Abilities by Dale N. Le Fevre (Findhorn Press, 2007)
Everybody Wins: 393 Non-Competitive Games for Young Children by Jeffrey Sobel (Walker and Co, 1984)
New Games Book by New Games Foundation (Main Street Publishing, 1976)
Guide to Cooperative Games for Social Change by Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst (CommonAction, 2006)