In the following scenario, think about triplets playing games at different ages. Rosa, Dolly, and Norman are now fourth graders. When they were toddlers, their caregiver played social games with them, such as This Little Piggy and Hide the Keys. In their Head Start program, they played running and chasing games and simple spinning games of chance, such as Hi-Ho Cherry-O. In these games, rules did not matter. Now Rosa plays on the school soccer team and practices soccer skills wherever she can. Dolly actively seeks friends to play strategy games such as Rummy and Clue. And Norman thrives on memory and word games such as Twenty Questions and Scrabble.

The games Rosa, Dolly, and Norman played are typical. Although games broaden the curriculum for children of all ages, many teachers believe games with rules foster a competitive rather than a cooperative spirit, question their value, and view them as frivolous.

What Is a Game?

A game is a form of play in which children follow an agreed-upon set of rules, predetermine an outcome, assign players specific roles, and assign sanctions for violations (DeVries, 1998; Hughes, 1999; Kamii & DeVries, 1980). Dictionary definitions usually include the elements of rules, competition, and winning.

Most children’s games involve physical skill, chance, strategy, or some combination of these elements to determine the outcome. In games of physical skill such as jump rope or stickball, motor skill is essential. Games of chance, such as the simple board game Winnie the Pooh, rely on dice or a spinner. Games of strategy, such as checkers or Boggle, require decision-making skills and compel players to take turns, follow complex directions, and employ complicated strategies. Organized sports are often considered strategy games because they require a player to plan strategies and imagine oneself in the opponent’s role.

The Value of Games

Games are one material that contributes to children’s creative-thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Games themselves are motivating for many children because the desire to play them comes from within. For many children, games provide a means to learn new skills and to practice known skills. Some educators believe that organized games for young children are developmentally inappropriate, thwart creativity, and encourage competition. Others believe that they can be appropriate if teachers positively confront the competitive element (DeVries, 1998; 1999; Kamii & DeVries, 1980). Games for school-age children should capitalize on their increased coordination, desire to challenge themselves individually, interest in facts and how things work and why things happen, and genuine love of group games. When group games match children’s developmental levels, children do the following:

  • Develop cooperative behaviors and strategic thinking by experiencing others’ thinking and relating it to their own. One third grader, for instance, talked about setting up a “double jump” in checkers, indicating her thinking in relation to her actions.
  • Practice autonomy by choosing whether to play the game and to follow its rules. To illustrate, when Carmella’s kindergarten friends wanted to play shadow tag, she chose another activity because she did not want to be “it.”
  • Engage in problem solving by deciding how to follow rules and play fairly. In one scenario, a group of first graders was trying to start a game of Go Fish but could not begin their play until they solved the problem of who was to go first.
  • Practice critical thinking by monitoring each other’s actions. In a game of dominoes, it is common to hear one child tell another, “That domino doesn’t have the same number of dots. You can’t use that one” (Johnson, Christie, et al., 1999).

Games suitable for young children have one or two simple rules, include all children who want to participate, encourage children to figure things out for themselves, and do not stress being first, winning, or losing. Young children like noncompetitive guessing games such as “I’m thinking of something in the room that is . . . ,” simple sorting and matching games, simple board games (if they can change the rules), and basic running and chasing games.

Children in first through fourth grades need strategy games that develop problem-solving and decision-making abilities while encouraging them to think about others’ thoughts and feelings. Board games and active outdoor group games are typical of this age for both boys and girls. With an emphasis on involvement, mutual enjoyment, and respect, group games can promote basic intellectual and social skills in children through fourth grade.

Competition Versus Cooperation

Games should be a positive experience for all children. All children should benefit from the physical challenge, exercise, problem solving, and strategic thinking while simultaneously enjoying a sense of belonging to the group, a commitment to goals, and enhanced cooperative skills, all of which contribute to academic success. If teachers make it clear that the goal of a game is doing as well as each child can, then games can enhance cooperation. To illustrate, Ms. Ake’s second graders were involved in relay races. When she reminded them that the goal of these races was to do their very best, she noticed how they urged one another on in their three-legged races as they jointly figured out ways to get quickly to the other side of the room.

Cooperation means operating together. It involves negotiating to arrive at an agreement that is acceptable to all. As a result, some disputes and conflicts are inevitable. When children play games cooperatively, they construct rules for themselves as they begin to experience others’ viewpoints. An emphasis on cooperative games encourages children to play together rather than against one another by focusing on group participation, sharing, giving each player an opportunity to play, and making rules that suit the players. Cooperative games help children develop a sense of teamwork, loyalty to the group, and knowledge of how to get along with others. Because Western culture is inherently competitive, it is a challenge for teachers to handle competition constructively in classrooms.

Your Role

Consider this group of elementary children playing Marble Run, a commercial game in which children combine small blocks with slides and intricate grooves into a course for the marble. As the children excitedly invent new courses, they exclaim, “Now, let’s try this!” or “Look at it go!” Their teacher commented, “This is their favorite game because it has so many possibilities and combinations. When I say, ‘It’s game time,’ I have to be sure to say ‘Only four children can use Marble Run.’ It is truly the favorite game in our classroom.”

The teacher’s role, in this case, was that of observer and manager as she freed the children to utilize the many available combinations. There was no correct way to play the game. The children constructed the rules in ways that made sense to them.

When using games in educational settings, teachers must provide opportunities for children to modify rules and create their own games. In that way, games such as Marble Run, as they are being played, become a powerful vehicle for developing intellectual and social autonomy. You can help children modify game rules by doing the following:

  1. Supporting their initiatives in games. The children playing Marble Run were encouraged to play the game in many different ways. Sometimes the game involved races; at other times it became a maze. Each group of players could initiate the way to play the game and then negotiate rules for it.
  2. Focusing on noncompetitive games. Children who compete can and do also cooperate in games as well as other activities. All children function best when they actively participate in most or all of the game instead of being excluded or eliminated by focusing on winning or losing. Appendix C describes appropriate, noncompetitive ball games, quiet games, singing games, running games, and partner games that can be introduced into the curriculum to enhance cooperation.
  3. Allowing them to modify rules during the game. Even though the children usually started one of the Marble Run games with a race of some kind, they often decided to change it in midstream to a different game. Their teacher supported their thinking about all of the variations they invented by using positive language that empowered them to think about the many possibilities inherent in the game.

Games are useful for active and quiet times, for transitions from one activity to another, and for fostering specific learning outcomes. Therefore, you will need to develop a repertoire of games that foster a cooperative spirit that will last children through their lives.