Sunday, 15 September 2013

Not just fun and games . . . .

When I was a child, playing a family board game meant playing Monopoly.  The thought filled me with dread, and if we did eventually play my big sister would always cheat. 

Now, with children of my own, playing games is an integral part of our lives.  We have all learnt a lot from playing games together, more than most people realise is possible.

There are games out there that set out to be educational – we tend to avoid those because a lot of times the fun gets pushed out as the “education” gets squeezed in, but pretty much all games are educational if you know what you’re looking at.

There are obvious points – games with dice encourage quick maths, games with cards mean quick reading, taking turns is essential, and winning or loosing gracefully is a serious life skill. 

There are less obvious points though . . .

We have children with specific difficulties, and for them playing games is an essential part of learning to be.  J has ASD, and with that comes a lot of impatience, and a lack of understanding of others.  The last two points in my list above – taking turns and winning or loosing gracefully – are vital skills for life.  They have also been hard lessons for him to learn.  For the past four years we have worked through a series of stages with him.  At first he was not interested in the games we played.  Then he would come and watch for a bit.  A few months later he would declare he was on someone’s team and playing with them.  Quite often he’d stay with the game for a couple of turns then drift away.  It took years to move from playing with another person to playing by himself, but now he manages to stick with games that last a couple of hours.  Slowly and gently he has stretched his attention span, expanded the length of time he can be around other people, and at the same time practised taking turns and giving others time “in the spot light” (ie not being annoying and attention seeking when it is another persons turn.)  Along side this we have had to help him work on managing his emotions when he looses.  As a family of six, with frequent visitors, J doesn’t win every time – or even anything close to half the time – and showing him that he could have fun playing a game without that time being wasted if he didn’t win has helped us in lots of other situations.

A key point is that the skills J is learning whilst playing games and having fun are directly transferable to “real life”.  Taking turns?  That one is obvious.  Being gracious in defeat is less so – often as adults we debate something, and the decision made by a group is not what we wanted.  As a child seeing the upside of not getting your own way helps in a wide range of situations – from choosing which game to play, which film to watch, whose turn it is first on the computer, which park we go to, down to decisions about food, who sits where in the car, who holds the dogs lead.  Getting used to not “winning” but still being able to be happy really counts for a lot.

L (our eldest) is dyslexic.  So reading has always been a chore for him.  So many games we play have small amounts of reading – sometimes just a few words, at most a sentence or two– and when he was resisting any form of reading he would still read to play games.  As a teenager L can often struggle both with having younger siblings, and with his brothers differences.  Playing games together helps to build tolerance and understanding. 

M (too many letters to list here!) has lots of difficulties.  He finds social interaction can go wrong quite quickly and he has no idea why. Games give him a structure to his interactions, and that lets him relax because he knows the rules, and he knows how to function in the situation.  Like J games have stretched M’s attention span, taught him to take turns, and to be relaxed about the outcome of a game.   He has also learnt to think ahead, to plan before acting, to look for consequences of any particular move or play.  Games have also taught him to budget his pocket money, and take care of his possessions.
As a family, we find that we can spend time together over a game with all the kids taking part – from the 14 year old down to the 6 year old.  Games give us so much more than I remember as a child . . . and the children don't even realise :)

In the next post I'll look at some of our favourite games, how they play and why we like them.

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