Every parent knows this – when you’re in the store or when you buy them a present, that game or toy is the most important thing in the world. One to three days later, the kids seem totally oblivious to it. Or on birthdays and holidays, toys and games stack up in large volumes, but only a few ever get picked and played with.
This leads to a cycle of ever growing frustration for the parent, as more boxes and toys accumulate in the house, while the kids complain about having “nothing to play with.”
The Board Game closet, from the film The Royal Tenenbaums
Why is this happening? And more importantly - what we can do to avoid this?
1.Understand why they want new things – everybody likes new stuff, and children are no exception. Buying new things may give us a sense of material success, but at its core, it’s a sense of belonging – to a brand and what we think it represents, to a group of people who will appreciate it, to a family that supports our needs.
The more we experience this feeling the more we need it, but also the harder it is to get it. But this neuro reaction can’t be sustained at the same level all the time or we won’t be able to do anything else.
To overcome this, consider making a purchase on a regular-basis, rather than base it on a special occasion – make a habit of buying a new game or toy once a month (or sign up for a our game subscription) to take some of the edge off. Consumerism isn’t all bad, and it is a part of life, and we need to prepare kids to handle it.
2. Understand why they want to play – For your child, games have a very special purpose – it helps them to acquire new skills. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ball game, a made up pretend-play or a fancy new science kit. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical, mental, cognitive or a combination of all three - it’s all about mastering a new or existing skill.
Child Development experts Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp wrote this eloquently in 2009,
“A wonderful cycle of learning is driven by the pleasure of play. A child is curious; she explores and discovers. The discovery brings pleasure; the pleasure leads to repetition and practice. Practice brings mastery; mastery brings the pleasure and confidence to once again act on curiosity. All learning – emotional, social, motor, and cognitive – is accelerated and facilitated by repetition fueled by the pleasure of play.”
But in many cases, toys and games are designed to develop a specific skill. For example, jigsaw puzzles are designed for matching colors and shapes, but they don’t teach us strategy, like Chess does.
Luckily, our kids don’t really care if there’s one or seven skills involved – they want to keep playing until they are confident enough that they have the right skills to play the game with ease (and possibly win.)
If a kid has lost an interest in a game after one or two rounds it means one of two things – it’s too easy or it’s too hard.
To overcome this, see which games stick longer and find out what exactly they like about them. At the same time, remember that some games will become obsolete, so it’s OK to get rid of them and make room for new ones.
3. Understand how they move between play and life – As adults, we aren’t likely to jump on a tree or start running randomly in the street with our buddies. We “know better” and we make a distinction between “playtime” and “real time.”
But children see the world differently – everything can be instantly turned into a game (i.e. an opportunity to acquire new skills.) Just because we bought them a fancy new box, doesn’t mean they want to play this game. Just because they asked for a specific game, doesn’t mean they want to play with it right now.
The key to overcome this is to shuffle the games all the time – don’t organize the games in the order of purchase, but rotate their position periodically, as kids react to what is visible and handy.
Every now and then it’s OK to leave unopen boxes, or unfinished games so they’ll be more eager to pick it up and play.
4. Understand your role in the game – many parents believe that games are the children’s realm – i.e. children need to play, and adults need to do adults’ stuff. Not only is science showing us that playing has a positive effect on us at any age, this is totally misunderstanding the parent role when it comes to playing.
Playing is first and foremost an educational activity. Kids play to develop skills, but they often need to do it with guidance. Parents are the most important guides in the kid’s life, much more than other kids and even more than professional educators.
The more interaction a child will have in a game, the more they will appreciate it. The more communication they will have with you, the more value a game has in their lives.
Don’t limit your role to an ATM and buying things – become an active part of the game.
5. Understand how they experience the rules – For adults a game cannot be played unless everyone knows and accepts the rules. Otherwise, we don’t know who wins or how the game ends. But we already established that children move freely between “play” and “life,” so for them, rules are a nuisance.
Rules are a difficult concept to for most children – on one hand, they expect fairness. On the other, the more structured the game is, the less exciting it will be for them.
This is more difficult with new games, as memorizing new rules is easier for adults and thus is perceived as the adult’s way of cheating (often by mentioning a rule after the child had already made their move.) Unless you’re playing a very rigorous game like Chess, use discretion in the first few rounds of a new game.
If a child finds a way to do something that isn’t by the rules, don’t make a big deal out of it. Remember that that the game is about developing new skills and sharing an interaction rather than playing by the rules. In the next round, you can reread the rules or discuss together how the rules make the game better (for example, by making it more fair.)
This may sound shocking, but questioning the rules is a form of critical thinking, and this too is a part of education and growing up.
6. Learn to have fun - child’s psychology aside, nothing is more contagious than someone having fun. Try looking at someone smiling and not smile yourself.
When this woman started laughing, it seems that the whole world was laughing with her. Our brain is wired to be sympathetic, so we react to what others are feeling.
If your kid sees you checking your mobile anxiously, stressed over something or simply distracted when you’re sharing a moment, then they are unlikely to enjoy it.
Even if a brand-new game is involved and even when they’ve been asking for it forever, turn off the phone, relax and engage yourself in the moment.
Paying attention is cheaper and more effective than paying for a new game they may never use.
It’s literally the best gift you can give them.