To win or not to win?

I am sure that almost every parent has faced this dilemma when introducing a strategy game to their kids: in those first few critical games, how often should I win and how often should I give in?  On one hand you don’t want them to get too used to winning and also one can argue that the better you play the more they learn how to avoid various pitfalls in future games.  On the other hand, most kids will get frustrated if they are constantly losing and they quickly lose interest.  So how does one find the balance?

The answer to this question probably varies by kid and by game but I would love to hear about other people’s experiences with this.  Today I felt that I discouraged Katie from playing a (new to her) game by beating her twice in a row.  My only hope is that I somewhat made up for it by having her watch me lose to my husband afterwards :-).

The game is basically an advanced variant of tic-tac-toe, where the goal is to get five in a row.  Katie has played tic-tac-toe in the past and so she got the concept right away.  The physical game consists of a board with little holes and many pegs of two different colors.  The pegs can also be used to ‘draw’ pictures on the board, which is what I initially told Katie the game was all about.  I am actually a big fan of using various game pieces for multiple activities.  Here is a design that Katie and an older friend  made yesterday:

Katie made the bottom figure
I also introduced the real rules of the game to the girls yesterday, and they played one round.  Katie won, mostly by chance, but was not interested in playing a second round.  Today, however, when we had a bit of time in the evening, she demanded that we play this game.  As already mentioned, I won twice in a row.  Both times, Katie was not very happy, even though I tried to warn her that I was about to get five in a row.  Half way through the third game she said that she didn’t want to play any more but wanted to make pictures again.
And so the question stands, to win or not to win?  What is the best strategy to follow if the goal is to maximize fun and learning and minimize frustration?
Btw, here is the picture from the game that I played with my husband.  Can you spot the five in a row?

About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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6 Responses to To win or not to win?

  1. Kristy says:

    When I play games with the children at school, I usually vary how much I pay attention to the game depending on their ability level. If they are younger and not very strategic yet, I either don’t think ahead very many moves or handicap myself in some other way, but don’t deliberately play badly. This leads to me winning some times but not others.

    Today I was playing the memory game with an advanced 5 year old who is extremely good at the game. I played my best. She beat me by one match the first time and I beat her by 4 matches the second time. I think she was happy with this because I told her that I was doing the best that I could do.


    • aofradkin says:

      Kristy, when I play memory with Katie I also don’t have to think about this issue because we are about equal at that game. And there are actually many other games where this is the case, either because there is enough randomness involved or because the skills that are needed are those that Katie has already developed well. However, in those strategy games where my skill level is way above hers at this point, I can’t always find a natural way to handicap myself. Sometimes I will try to come up with a non-competitive version of the game until she gets more comfortable with it.


  2. ywklin says:

    Sasha, we play lots of games that require strategy! One way I handicap myself is by thinking out loud. I evaluate various moves, talk through why I would or wouldn’t want to make a move, then explain why I’m making the move I ultimately choose. It helps the kids defend against my strategy because they know what’s coming, it helps them understand some basic strategies, it models how I’d like them to think about the game, and it keeps things interesting for me because I have to think of new strategies :-). Sometimes we also discuss the moves they’re thinking about making, and in particular, I try to help them think ahead a few moves. There are still games where I’m clearly better than them, but I think this helps level the playing field.

    I think games actually present a valuable opportunity to help kids learn to cope with frustration and losing. I want them to be okay with losing and with sometimes not being the best so that they don’t avoid things out of fear of failure. (I feel like I’ve avoided quite a few things in my life because I thought I wouldn’t be among the best, and I’m trying to help my kids not be like that!) I try to highlight small moments when we’re playing that show they’re playing well or trying hard (“Oh, you noticed that I was about to eat your queen so you moved it away”) — so that they have small successes, even if they don’t win the game. I try to model good losing — when I lose, I say things like, “As we play more, maybe I’ll get better at noticing when you’re about to get four in a row.” In games as in most things, I emphasize the satisfaction and value of doing something challenging and working hard at getting better.

    Sometimes a game really is too hard and frustrating, especially since we’re often trying to play things that are designed for much older kids. In those cases, we just put the game away for a while and try again later. Everything becomes age-appropriate eventually 🙂


    • I like the idea of discussing each move with the kids. It adds so much to their learning experience. I try to do the same with my students in our math club when we discuss a new type of problems and they do not have enough knowledge to solve them. Works really well.


    • aofradkin says:

      Kathy, thanks for all the suggestions! I will try talking things through more with Katie, although in my experience she often starts waving her hands and saying that she wants to do things her own way and I shouldn’t give her hints.


  3. Scott says:

    I know that when I was a child, I hated it when my parents weren’t trying to win, because then I couldn’t see the point of the game. This is probably not always a problem for every child, but it is still one more thing to watch out for.


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