The month of August brings thoughts of the new school year and a fresh look at how children learn and grow. With that focus in mind, the Handwriting is Fun! blog is proud to bring you a series of posts that will share insights from Occupational Therapists that reflect their views on and visions for our students’ learning experiences. In our last article of the series, we will discuss the role that competition can play in a child’s learning, considering the positive and negative aspects, as well as our role as OT’s, teachers, parents, and coaches in turning the negatives into positives. I hope you will enjoy it and I look forward to your feedback.
Competition and Children: A learning experience
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
This month I turned my attention toward the concepts of learning that have played a major role in providing effective handwriting development services to the children and families in my practice. Learning, by definition, is simply “the act or process of acquiring knowledge or a skill.” But learning in itself is not a simple process. We may all go through the same steps in learning – reading, listening, watching, imitating, and practicing – but we all complete those steps in our own individual and unique way. In this article, I hope to share with you some of the positive measures we can take, as therapists, parents, and teachers, to address our children’s learning styles and emotional needs as we guide them toward mastery in a competitive environment.
Competition, Play, and Education
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)
When I was a teacher, I shared this quote with my students many, many times as they struggled with their academics. I have found it to be just as helpful as a guiding light in my occupational therapy practice. I often share my own feelings about disappointments, explaining that there are days when I feel that I’ve let the team down and that the world is going to stop spinning and everyone is going to point their finger at me and say, “You lost!” It helps them to understand that everyone misses the mark sometimes and that more often than not the loss turns into a gain. It helps to open the discussion about the ways that we re-strategize and re-organize everything we’ve learned in that experience into an even better plan. There are times, however, when a child views losing as a powerful force that either pushes him into a fiercely competitive stance or forces him to back away from the challenge. Playing, in its role as both a fun activity and a child’s learning ground, can become a place where children are labeled as “winners and losers.” As children begin to engage in interactive play, the games become competitive as well as a fun learning experience. School is another opportunity for children to engage in competition as skill mastery, homework, tests, and report cards take center stage as a measurement of learning. So, how do we keep the fun in games and enjoyment in education while nurturing the competitiveness that helps them to learn and grow?
You may be asking, “Do we really need competitiveness in children’s games and in education?” Yes, to a certain extent, we do. As children go through their life’s journey, they will be faced with both intrapersonal and interpersonal competition. Games and sports should be enjoyable opportunities for children to experience competition while learning the value of hard work, teamwork, and a competitive drive. The development of these skills can enhance their success with educational skills as they become more confident in their ability to pick themselves up and continue to learn. We all want to win; it’s validation that what we are doing is paying off. But the joy of winning should be more about getting better at the game versus beating the other players. I recently read the perfect quote that speaks to that notion:
Learning to lose graciously is a skill, just as much as learning to win with honor. In my practice as an occupational therapist, I use games to develop the underlying handwriting development skills my students need for mastery. While they may be having fun in therapy, they are also experiencing winning and losing as they challenge themselves to learn or enhance a skill. So, how can I help children to develop the art of gracious losing and honorable winning when they are playing games with me, as well as when they are playing with others?
Four Guides for Challenging Learners
1. Know when to win and when to lose!
During my work with children, I walk a fine line when I’m playing games with them. The mere fact that they are working with me indicates that there are some visual-perceptual, visual-motor, and visual-spatial issues involved. For the younger ones, chances are I am going to be more skilled at the game. (Chances are!!) Sometimes they know that I am holding back. When they ask me why, I tell them that these are practice sessions, like in sports, and as they get better, watch out! I’ll be putting them to the test. That seems to encourage them to compete with themselves to learn as quickly as they can and reminds them that there will be some competition with me later. As they progress with their skills, I “high five” their success and then ask them to remember when they didn’t succeed. We talk about how they felt about the challenge then and how they viewed that same challenge now. And then I remind them that I am going to be asking them to push themselves beyond that success until they can teach me how to play the game better!
For the older students, most of the time I will be learning with them! I tell them that we are working as a team and that encourages them to challenge themselves to perfect their skills so that they can teach me. Teaching has always been the best way to learn and a most satisfying way to experience success. As we progress through the learning stages of a new skill, I ask them to talk me through it while they teach me a step, giving them an opportunity to be in control of the session, so to speak, and to recognize the areas in which they continue to need assistance. With each success, I congratulate them, ask them to reflect upon the struggles they’ve overcome, and remind them that we will be pushing ourselves even further the next time to increase our skill level.
2. Energize and Emphasize!
It’s important to remember, and to emphasize, that it is only a game. Of course, in order to not speak out of both sides of our mouths, we need to practice what we preach. Children will learn whether or not winning is the most important part of the game as they observe our actions and reactions in our conversations with them and other adults. I’ve found that the most revealing truths about winning and losing can be witnessed while watching or talking about national sports! Children will also form their perception of losing when they hear us talk about our own losses. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. As I pull out the board games, I begin the discussion about the fun we will have as each of us works toward his or her own personal best. Chatter about past successes can encourage a child to embrace the challenge ahead of him. “Remember when you got 14 points last time? That was awesome. Let’s both see if we can each raise our own scores just a little bit!” There will still be a winner and a loser. But, the emphasis is on self-improvement. Satisfaction with personal achievement helps to take the punch out of the winning-or-losing conundrum.
3. Encourage and Empathize!
Games that encourage a combination of competition and cooperation have been shown to provide players with the greatest satisfaction and to produce the highest results. And this goes for table-top games as well as active sports. Michael Jordan didn’t win or lose games all on his own. Team players work together to construct and carry out a plan. Of course, winning is the goal. But helping each other to attain it is the path toward completing it. And that’s the place to encourage children to empathize with and to encourage each other. The emphasis should be on solving problems and not the competition. As they work together, they will discover that winning depends upon how well they have solved the problems.
During the Manuscript and Cursive Clubs I’ve offered, the sessions focused around group tasks that fostered opportunities to share, encourage, and empathize with team members. The activities ranged from designing and building a Lego city, to writing a play, and to following each other’s directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As the groups matured, I often placed one member in the leadership role to guide the team as a “fellow student,” modeling the behaviors that bring forth success. Each time, the members would bring their own personal failures and successes to the table to encourage a struggler or to empathize with his challenges. Who needed me?
4. Laughter and Lots of Chances!
Learning a game or sport, and perfecting those skills, can get tough. The same goes for addressing the underlying skills that build learning successes. In my work, I don’t open the door to giving-up or throwing in the towel. I monitor the child’s behaviors during a game or task, balancing his challenges between testing and frustrating. Just before he has arrived at the point of frustration, I know it’s time to laugh, talk, and try again. Learning to laugh at themselves can go a long way in taking losses less seriously. “Isn’t it silly how you’ve missed that three times already?” Opening the door to discussion gives a child the opportunity to analyze his actions and to ask for help. And, always, having another chance to do work at it again lets him know that he’s a winner for trying! I feel that this strategy is the foundation for learning, for everyone.
The adage, “Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose,” is true in the game of life. The sooner children recognize it, the easier it will be for them to play the game and the sooner they will feel comfortable about striving for “personal excellence.”
Competition, as a tool, is a healthy way to learn.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills and understands the link between handwriting skills and writing. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine. Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.
The past articles in this month’s series: