When it comes to children’s games, playing the game matters more than winning. But some healthy competition is also good for children – when it’s handled well. You can teach your child about fair play and how to cope with the disappointment of losing.

Children and fair play

Playing fair is about learning the rules of the game and putting them into practice – whether they’re special family rules for card or board games, or the rules at Saturday football. This way, everyone gets to enjoy the experience.

In some games, you can make up new rules. This can be a great way for children to learn about solving problems together and being flexible.

Fair play is also about learning social rules, like taking turns and being polite. For children, it might mean helping out another child who is having trouble with the game, or giving others a fair go at winning.

Helping your child with fair play: tips

You can use the following tips to help children of any age learn about fair play and enjoying the game.

  • Consider the age of your child: children can learn about fair play more easily when the game is suitable for their age. For example, children younger than about six or seven find it hard to understand formal rules. Simple games that give each child a turn and short waiting times can also work well for younger children.

  • Give your child the chance to play lots of different games: the more experience and practice the better. Try pretend play, board and ball games, competitive games of skill like chess, competitive games of chance, and cooperative games like charades.

  • Find a range of playmates: it’s good for your child to play with children who are older or younger. For example, your child can learn to look out for younger children and maybe show them the rules. Older children can also be good role models for younger children.

  • Go over the rules of the game: before the game starts, make sure everyone knows the rules. The younger the child, the simpler the rules need to be. 

  • Introduce some social rules: these could be rules about taking turns and congratulating other people when they win.

  • Give feedback: praise your child for sharing, taking turns and other examples of playing fair. Point out what your child did well. For example, you might say, ‘I thought it was great the way you shook hands with the other team at the end of the game’.

Children learn about fair play by watching what you say and do. Following the rules, accepting referee decisions and being a good sport yourself all set a great example for your children. You can be a good role model on the sidelines too by saying things like, ‘Better luck next time’, ‘Good try’, ‘Well played’.

Fair play and competition

Competition can be good for children

When children compete against each other, the game becomes a challenge and motivates children to do their best. It can improve skills, encourage discipline and focus, and make children feel good about their achievements.

Competition also increases the desire to win. And that’s when children can sometimes find it hard to play fair. Because they want to win, they might challenge rules and other players. Some might get into arguments with their team mates and even start cheating.

Competition checklist

You can help your child have a good experience at competitive games by thinking about whether the game is suitable for her. Here are some questions that can help you work this out:

  • Is the game suitable for your child’s age? Modify the game to suit your child’s age or let him know he can play it when he’s older.

  • Does your child have an opportunity to win? Switch to a game of chance where your child will have the same chance of winning as an adult.

  • Is the opponent playing fair? Step in and take action – either make sure rules are being followed or stop the play.

Competition works best when you set out clear and fair rules before the game begins and make sure everyone sticks to them. It’s also good if children are all at the same skill level.

Children deal better with competition as they get older. It might be best to wait until your child shows an interest in playing a competitive sport.

When children aren’t playing fair

Here are some ideas for those times when your child is finding it tough to play fair:

  • Take your child out of the game and talk calmly and clearly about what you expect from her behaviour. Let her know what she can do to play fairly. For example, ‘It’s important that everyone follows the rules and the rules say that you can only have one throw each turn’. You can also let her know that it’s hard but important to play fairly – this might help her control her feelings.

  • If your child keeps behaving the same way or if it gets worse, deal with his behaviour and have a chat with him afterwards when he calms down.

  • Talk to your child about her feelings of frustration and what she should do next time. Before your child plays the next game, you could try setting up some ground rules. For example, ‘If you complain about the rules, I’ll stop you from playing the game’. 

  • Remind your child that games are about having fun, not about winning or losing. Try to give feedback that focuses on the fun of the game, not who won or lost.

  • If your child is bragging about winning as a way of getting attention or respect from others, try praising him for his efforts in other areas more – for example, when he cooperates with others, shares or is helpful.

Winning and losing

It’s not about winning or losing – it’s about how you play the game. When your child understands this, she’ll be a ‘good sport’ and have fun playing, no matter if she wins or loses.

Winning is a great feeling, and it’s OK for your child to feel proud of being the winner. It’s also important for your child to be a good winner. This means showing sympathy and support to the losing team or player. If you can, try to discourage your child from boasting and instead highlight the fun that everyone had playing the game.

Sometimes it’s hard to turn losing into good news. But emphasising how well your child played is really important in helping him handle any bad feelings. Praise your child’s efforts. For example, ‘You were great at helping the younger kids’ or ‘You followed the rules really well’.

Children – and even adults – find it easier to lose in a game of luck than in a game of skill. This is because losing a game of chance doesn’t say anything about you or your abilities. If your child is having difficulty dealing with losing, try playing games of chance first, then build up to skill-based activities.

Some games of chance include Snakes and Ladders, Snap, and Trouble.

Games of skill include Connect 4, Chess, and Pick-up Sticks.

It’s tempting to let your child win. It can keep her interested in the game and boost her confidence. You can let young children win from time to time, especially if they’re playing against older people. But letting your child win all the time can make it harder for her to learn that she won’t always win in the real world. It might make real winning less satisfying.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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