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

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.

Playing fair 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 shot at winning.

Helping your child to play fair

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

  • The more the better . Provide lots of opportunities for a variety of play. 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. Your child can benefit from playing with children who are older or younger. For example, he can learn to be responsible by looking out for younger children, maybe showing them the rules. Older children can provide 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.
  • Introduce some social rules . Let your child know that she needs to wait for her turn. Also encourage her to be polite. For example, remind her to congratulate others when they win.
  • Use opportunities to teach . 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 good sporting behaviours. 
  • Lead by example. Children learn how to play fairly by watching what their parents say and do. Playing fair yourself – by following the rules, accepting referee decisions, being a good sport – is good role modelling. The same applies to being a spectator. Call out those encouraging phrases – ‘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.

Fair play and competition

Competition can be really 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 opportunity 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 clear and fair rules are set out before the game begins and then enforced during play. It’s also good if children are all at the same skill level.

When children aren’t playing fair

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

  • Remove your child from the game and discuss your expectations of her behaviour.
  • If the behaviour repeats or becomes more intense, such as throwing tantrums, deal with the tantrum and have a follow-up discussion when all is calm.
  • Before your child plays the next game, talk about ways he can deal with his frustration. Set down some ground rules. For example, ‘If you complain about the rules, I’ll stop you from playing the game’.
  • Continue to emphasise the enjoyment of playing the game, not the winning or losing.
  • If your child is bragging about winning as a way of obtaining admiration or respect from others, try more praise for her 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 will be good sports, and graceful winners and losers – and that’s a big part of playing fair.

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 him 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. 


Games of chance Games of skill
Snakes and ladders Connect 4
Snap Chess
Trouble Pick-up sticks
It’s tempting to let your child win. It can keep her interested in the game and boost her confidence. Very young children can be encouraged by having a win from time to time, especially if they’re playing against older opponents. But letting your child win can make it harder for her to learn that she won’t always win in the real world.
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  • Last Updated 09-05-2009
  • Last Reviewed 22-07-2009
  • Anderman, E., Griesinger, T. & Westerfield, G. (1998). Motivation and cheating during early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 84-93.

    Shields, D., Lavoi, N., Bredemeier, B. & Power, F. (2007). Predictors of poor sportsmanship in youth sports: Personal attitudes and social influences, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 747-762.

    Tauer, J. & Harackiewicz, J. (2004). The effects of cooperation and competition on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 849-861.