By Raising Children Network
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Boy playing football
When it comes to children’s games, playing the game matters more than winning. But some healthy competition is also good for children – when it’s handled well. You can teach your child about fair play and how to cope with the disappointment of losing.

Children and fair play

Playing fair is about learning the rules of the game and putting them into practice – whether they’re special family rules for card or board games, or the rules at Saturday football. This way, everyone gets to enjoy the experience.

In some games, there’s also room for making up new rules, which can be a great way to solve problems collaboratively and encourage children to be flexible.

Fair play is also about learning social rules, like taking turns and being polite. For children, it might mean helping out another child who is having trouble with the game, or giving others a fair go at winning.

Helping your child with fair play: tips

Use the following tips to help your child learn about fair play and enjoying the game.

  • Consider the age of your child. Children younger than about six or seven find it hard to see other people’s perspectives, so formal rules might not make sense until they’re older.
  • The more experience and practice the better. Give your child the chance to play lots of different games. Try pretend play, board and ball games, competitive games of skill such as chess, competitive games of chance, and cooperative games such as charades.
  • Find a range of playmates. It’s good for your child to play with children who are older or younger. For example, he can learn to be responsible by looking out for younger children and maybe showing them the rules. Older children can be good role models for younger kids.
  • Go over the rules of the game. Before kids start playing, make sure everyone knows the rules of the game. The younger the child, the simpler the rules need to be. 
  • Introduce some social rules. Let your child know that she needs to wait for her turn. You might also need to reassure her that her turn is coming and keep the game simple, so she doesn’t have a long wait. Encourage her to be polite too. For example, remind her to congratulate others when they win.
  • Point out what your child did well. For example, you can say, ‘I thought it was great the way you shook hands with the other team at the end of the game’.
  • Give feedback. Praise your child for sharing, taking turns and other examples of fair play.
Children learn about fair play by watching what you say and do. Following the rules, accepting referee decisions and being a good sport yourself all set a great example for your children. You can be a good role model on the sidelines too by saying things like, ‘Better luck next time’, ‘Good try’, ‘Well played’.

Fair play and cooperation

Introducing your child to cooperative games and team sports is a good way to encourage him to learn how to cooperate in a team and compete against opponents.

Cooperative games help children develop comradeship, negotiation, acceptance and responsibility for others. Examples of cooperative games include charades and guessing games.

Cooperating in a team helps kids learn social rules and fair play skills. Children want the team to do well and don’t want to let their team mates down. This means they’re more likely to follow the rules and work together to get the best result.

Young children need to learn basic play skills such as taking turns and sharing before they’re ready for team games. You can help them learn these skills as part as everyday family life – for example, when you’re sharing food at mealtimes.

Fair play and competition

Competition can be good for children.

When children compete against each other, the game becomes a challenge – and motivates children to do their best. It can improve skills, encourage discipline and focus, and make children feel good about their achievements.

Competition also increases the desire to win. And that’s when children can find it hard to play fair. They challenge the rules and the other players. They can become obsessed about winning, get into arguments with their team mates and might even start cheating.

Competition checklist
Your child won’t have the chance to compete well if the odds are stacked against her. Help your child when she’s competing by using the following checklist:

  • Is the game suitable for your child’s age? Modify the game to suit your child’s age or let him know he can play it when he’s older.
  • Does your child have an opportunity to win? Switch to a game of chance where your child will have the same chance of winning as an adult.
  • Is the opponent playing fair? Step in and take action – either ensure rules are being followed or stop the play.

Competition works best when you set out clear and fair rules before the game begins and enforce them during play. It’s also good if children are all at the same skill level.

Children deal better with competition as they get older. It might be best to wait until your child shows an interest in playing a competitive sport.

When children aren’t playing fair

Here are some ideas for those times when your child is finding it tough to play fair:

  • Take your child out of the game and talk about what you expect from her behaviour.
  • If your child keeps behaving the same way or it gets worse, deal with his behaviour and have a follow-up discussion when things calm down.
  • Before your child plays the next game, talk about ways she can deal with frustration. Set down some ground rules. For example, ‘If you complain about the rules, I’ll stop you from playing the game’.
  • Keep emphasising the enjoyment of playing the game, not the winning or losing.
  • If your child is bragging about winning as a way of getting admiration or respect from others, try more praise for his efforts in other areas, particularly for cooperating with others, sharing and being helpful.

Winning and losing

It’s not about winning or losing – it’s about how you play the game.

That’s something we want our children to feel. It means they’ll be good sports, and graceful winners and losers – and that’s a big part of fair play.

Winning is a great feeling, and kids are entitled to experience pride in being the winner. Encourage your child to be a graceful winner by showing sympathy and support to the losing team or player. Discourage too much boasting and emphasise the fun that everyone had playing the game.

Sometimes it’s hard to turn losing into good news. But emphasising how well your child played is really important in helping her shrug off any bad feelings. Praise your child’s efforts. For example, ‘You were great at helping the younger kids’ or ‘You followed the rules really well’.

Children (and adults) find it easier to lose in a game of luck than in a game of skill. This is because there is no reflection on abilities. If your child is having difficulty dealing with losing, try playing games of chance first, then build up to skill-based activities.

Some games of chance include Snakes and Ladders, Snap and Trouble.

Games of skill include Connect 4, Chess and Pick-up Sticks.

It’s tempting to let your child win. It can keep him interested in the game and boost his confidence. You can let young children win from time to time, especially if they’re playing against older opponents. But letting your child win all the time can make it harder for him to learn that he won’t always win in the real world.
  • Last updated or reviewed 23-06-2014