Some of my fondest childhood memories were from family game night. Sitting around laughing, joking and maybe sometimes getting a little too competitive! Why is it then that until recently I rarely allotted time for games with my learners? Just like teaching play skills, I think many of us have at one point or another avoided games because the kids just don’t seem to enjoy them and it takes a lot of effort on the part of the parent/teacher/therapist to try and build that excitement. I can think of many a time where I was running around a therapy room doing my best airplane impression or crawling around roaring like a lion only to be met by the face of a less than impressed child. If our behavior is not being reinforced then we are less likely to continue in the future.
The lack of excitement from the kids while playing resulted in a lack of reinforcement for me. All hope however is not lost. We just need to work to pair the game (a neutral or maybe in some cases, aversive stimuli) with a known reinforcer. If just the act of your gingerbread making it to King Kandy Castle first and hearing the cheers from your friends doesn’t do it for you, then maybe a cappuccino and a cannoli at the end might help. It would for me at least!
In summary, we need to condition winning and game completion as a reinforcer. Yes, I do play games with winners and losers as I consider being a gracious winner and loser a life skill…but we will save that for another post. The focus here is that the ability for an individual to sit and play a game with family or peers opens up not only additional social opportunities but also opportunities to work on academic and language goals as well. In many cases this is a great way for learners to generalize skills to novel materials while more advanced learners may even acquire a new skill set by playing.