There is absolutely no denying that children learn best through play. Maria Montessori, founder of the schools that bear her name, often said, “Play is the work of the child.”
When we think of children playing, we tend to think of recess and playgrounds, with groups of kids freely running here and there. But there is such a thing as structured play. And it usually comes in the form of games.
Whether on the playground, in the classroom, or even on the computer at home, children love to play games. Unfortunately, many of us tend to see such games as a waste of time. However, even seemingly mind-numbing video games can teach children valuable lessons — if used correctly. As adults, we must find the value in each of our children’s experiences, and make sure they get the most they can out of everything they encounter in life, including games.
Games provide comfort
When children play a game, they know – or should know – that their main goal is to have fun. They need to be sure that the worst thing that can happen while playing is they might lose the game (Don’t worry – we’ll discuss sore losers later). Games, for children, are not high-stakes events. When a child feels comfortable playing a game, he is free to explore within the confines of the game’s environment. When this happens, the potential for growth is highest.
Games provide structure
All games have a framework which the players must work within if they want to succeed. Children are required to learn the rules of the game they are playing and to exhibit the discipline necessary to stay within these rules.
That being said, games also provide freedom for children to think creatively and strategically. Think of football. The NFL rulebook is hundreds of pages long — clearly there are tactics that cannot be used on the gridiron. But coaches and players are constantly coming up with new strategies in order to outsmart their opponents.
Put simply, games provide a box, but it’s those children who think just enough outside of it who experience the greatest success.
Games provide for communication
Social skills are a huge part of any type of play. With the exception of a few games, like Solitaire or Minesweeper, all require some sort of communication.
When playing a cooperative game, children need to understand the importance of communicating with their teammates to figure out the best way to accomplish their goal. This not only requires that each member of the team be clear in what they say, but also that they exhibit proper listening skills. Furthermore, some games necessitate non-verbal communication. In these instances, children need to rely on alternative means of expressing information to each other while simultaneously not giving away information to the other team.
Children need to learn to communicate with their opponents, as well. Good sportsmanship is a huge part of any game, both during play and after the game ends. While it’s okay to promote friendly competition, it’s just as important for children to learn that opponents are not enemies. In fact, they should come to learn that their competition is often what drives them to do better.
Games provide feedback
Game playing is the ultimate test of a child’s skills and abilities. In games in which luck is not a factor, the more skilled individual will almost certainly come out victorious. The value in this is in the immediate feedback received by both the winner and the loser while playing.
When playing games, players should always be focused on improving their chances of outperforming their opponent. This may mean practicing and training before actually engaging in a game with a more skilled counterpart, or it may mean adjusting strategy during game play. Whatever the case may be, playing a game can show a child what he does well and what he needs to work on.
Games also provide milestones for children (such as the first time a younger brother beats an older sibling at chess). These milestones help children track their progress in ways that aren’t necessarily clear otherwise. Children thrive on knowing their efforts are not being wasted and are actually helping them improve in some way or another. In this aspect, playing games may be the ultimate way for children to become self-driven learners.