Playing games with three, four and five-year olds can be a lot of fun as long as you learn the rules… grandchildren always win! I learned this rule through experience. I will always remember the first time I played Candy Land with my granddaughter May. I did my homework. I read the ages that it was geared towards and thought, “Now, we’re cooking! It’s time to move onto the next level!”
No longer would I have to crawl on all fours and play “pony,” “dog,” or whatever animal would make May giggle with delight as she climbed on my sagging back and we romped around on the living room rug. I could leave the toddler stage and move onto sitting upright; playing a real game with real pieces and real rules. Right? Wrong! Sure the game would have me sitting upright and it did have real pieces, but the rules… Well, that would turn out to be another story.
I remember setting up the game with May and explaining how we would play it. I knew that I was in trouble when May saw the playing cards and proclaimed, “I get the lollypop card.” The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Me: Well, May, you might be able to get the lollypop card if when it’s your turn, you turn that card over.”
May: (Once again, simply stated) I get the lollypop card!
I could see where this was going. May wanted the “lollypop card” at the onset of the game and the lollypop card she would have. So, what’s the big deal? I’m the adult. I can do without the lollypop card. We would just play the game without it.
In my experience as a primary school teacher, I have come to realize how much winning means to a young child. I can recall when I sat on the floor and played UNO with my second graders and how excited they would get when they “beat the teacher.” If I happened to win and gloat the way they did, they would sit sad-faced and instantly want a rematch. Often as a last-ditch effort, my students would attempt to “bend the rules” a bit to their advantage. Winning over the teacher brought immeasurable happiness to my students and, as their teacher, immeasurable happiness to me.
As children advance in age, they may continue to get upset over losing a game, but are better able to camouflage their true feelings. They might brush it off as though it’s “no big deal,” or may argue the way the game was played, but a four-year-old has yet to develop any sort of game playing subterfuge. What you get with such a young child is raw emotion. The difference between my students and a four-year-old is that there is an unwritten rule that the four-year-old must win more often than not.
May and I played Candy Land together with the “lollypop” card held in her small hand throughout the game. Instinctively, I knew that I had to let her win if I was to be the grammy I always dreamed I’d be. The question was how to win yet still give her a sense that games have rules, a lesson I am certain her parents teach her time and again But I’m the grammy! The most obvious solution was to fix the cards so that whenever May drew a card, she would draw cards that advanced her significantly over the cards I drew. This, of course had to be done in a surreptitious manner. I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to pick up any bad habits. Not on my watch.
Happily and not surprisingly, May won that initial game and has subsequently won almost every game since. May continues to grab the infamous “lollypop card” at the start of the game and for the most part, miraculously continues to draw all of the cards that put her at an advantage. But, her joy when she hugs me and says “I always win, grammy” makes my day. When on occasion she loses the game, she usually wants to move onto a new activity and that’s O.K., too.
One of these days May will begin to learn that winning isn’t everything, but rather the love of the game is what matters. She will experience failure and will learn that failure is but a bump on the road to success. I know she will learn these lessons because I know her parents. But at this stage of her little life, when she is learning how to play games and developing the self-confidence that will guide her through the setbacks to come, I will gladly defer to her need to win.
Teaching young children has taught me how valuable game playing can be as a tool for establishing rapport with and getting a glimpse into the mind of a child. There are several quality games both new and those that have withstood the test of time. Whether prepackaged or homemade, with a grandchild, games are a viaduct for developing communication skills and sharing that special time together.