Did you know, playing can actually help you to learn? Games and playing are extremely effective tools to engage anyone at any age. Mindful enjoyment reduces the effects of stress, increases connection in relationships and helps us to learn and practice important skills in a non-threatening way (provided people are using appropriate social skills while playing with each other). You can help him build skills, by playing games.
In my therapy practice and in my family, I often use games to teach and practice emotional regulation, executive functioning and social skills. Games are also great for improving self esteem, improving impulse control and building academic skills. If you are a person with intensities, games can be a great outlet for those too.
Remember, not every game needs to be intellectually challenging to be effective. Often when we have bright and gifted kids we work to make everything a challenge or some sort of traditional work. The truth is, we learn in multiple ways and on different levels. We are all more motivated to learn and complete tasks when we are having fun. Keep this in mind when choosing games for yourself and your children. The focus is on enjoyment, connection and targeted skills which are transferable to life. If you are creative, you can even find ways to gamify your life or your child’s life to create motivation for mundane tasks.
Lastly, games offer an excellent opportunity to learn and practice social skills. While many gifted people have excellent social skills, many of us can benefit from a little practice. Being overly competitive, an ungracious winner or a poor loser is not helpful, especially if you are an adult playing with children. If your child, teen or yourself struggle in these areas, games offer an opportunity to practice a different way of behaving and managing social interactions.
This is not to say games should have a punitive element. Instead, when people become frustrated, disappointed or distracted, it’s time to take a break, acknowledge feelings and practice positive coping strategies like deep breathing, orienting to surroundings and movement. If players are overly competitive, unkind or feel constantly discouraged, it’s a good time to remind everyone it’s just a game, and meant to be fun. It might also be a good opportunity to try a new game that gives different people the opportunity to flex their skills. Additionally,you can allow different players to use their strengths in different roles. For example, if one player is especially rule conscious, they can be in charge of reading the rules and explaining game play to the others.
Here are some games I like for building interoception awareness, emotional regulation,and impulse control, executive functioning, cooperation and social skills, and imagination/self expression.
Interoception - If we are able to realize the clues our bodies give us, we are better able to recognize and avoid danger. We are also better able to calm ourselves when our lives aren’t actually being threatened, but our nervous system is on high alert anyway. When we notice pleasant and calm sensations we are more likely to enjoy experiences, expand our emotional capacity and can reduce the effects of stress. This is important for anyone, and is especially relevant for people who have overexciteabilities or supersensitivities.
One, Two, Three What Do You See? This is a game to help you and your children orient to your surroundings, while tracking body sensations. First, let your eyes wander for at least 30 seconds. Notice three things you like or are curious about. Then notice your body. How does it feel when you notice something pleasant? Maybe your muscles are less tense, and you feel a sensation of warmth in your chest. Help your children and teens talk about what they are noticing. Next, when you are ready, let your eyes wander again, only this time notice at least one thing you don’t like. Now check in with your body, how does that feel? Maybe you feel some tension in your jaw or tightness in your chest. Talk about what you’re noticing, and help your children to do the same. This is a great game to play with your children and teens to help them start recognizing simple sensations in their bodies associated with pleasure and discomfort, which is a precursor to emotional regulation. Simple orienting can also be very calming when feeling heightened emotions, increased heart rate and racing thoughts.
Calm Tag The game starts where one person is “it”. They chase the others and tap them. If you are tagged you must stop, notice how you feel from running around and calm yourself through orienting, deep breathing or feeling your feel on the ground. When you are calm start running again. When someone starts running again they yell “Calm! I’m It” and become it. It’s a great way to gain awareness and practice at self calming.
Snowball or Sword Fight Snowball and sword fights are similar using different tools. You can have a snowball fight using soft “snowballs”, rolled up socks or other soft objects that don’t hurt. Pool noodles work great for sword fights. Starting the game, set a timer for 30 seconds to 2 minutes of rigorous game play at a time. The object of the game is to try to hit the other players with snowballs or swords, while avoiding being hit yourself. After the game timer goes off, everyone stops to notice how their bodies feel and practice self calming strategies, like those mentioned for Calm Tag. When everyone is calm, start the game over. Play as many cycles as everyone wants, as long as it’s fun. This type of game teaches everyone how to recognize when their body is energized, and how to calm it down.
In addition to using the aforementioned games, using a Stop, Breath and Think strategy to help regulate intense emotions and reduce impulsive behavior is great to practice while playing games. Before taking action stop, take three deep breaths with long exhales and think before acting. You can help children and teens to practice this in low intensity situations. Games can help everyone to practice this skill and build self regulation and impulse control as they grow. Games are great because they're fun, interesting and can help kids increase self control while helping them to tolerate discomfort and learn skills for managing when things don't go their way.
Red Light Green Light With A Twist If playing with multiple people, the object of the game is to reach the end line before all the other players. However, if there are only two players, the object is to follow the directions. If the directions are not followed, the person making the mistakes goes back to the beginning and starts over. It's meant to be fun and not punitive. How to play: One player is the person who stands at the end line and calls out to the players on the playing field. The player calling out gives instructions of red light, green light, or yellow light. In the first round, red is stop. Green is go. Yellow is something of the caller's choosing, like jump up and down, turn around, be silly or move in slow motion. If playing with more than one person the first person to reach the end wins that match. In the second round, red means go. Green means stop, and yellow means a new action of the caller's choosing. This game is great for stopping and thinking before acting, listening carefully to directions and practicing impulse control. It's all for fun and no shame if mistakes are made.
Hide and Seek The objective of the game is to find the best hiding spot and keep from being found. The last one hiding wins! How to play: One player closes their eyes and counts to 20 (or another predetermined number) while the rest of the players run to find a hiding spot. When the player finishes counting, the hunt for the rest of the players begins by yelling “Ready or Not, Here I Come!” The game concludes when all the players are found. The next person could be the first or last person found, you make the rules. This game helps to practice patience, impulse control, being quiet and a gracious winner or loser.
Freeze Dance The object is to increase self awareness, self control and have fun. Have a dance party with a small group of kids or family members and tell everyone that when you stop the music, they must hold very still. The first person to move is eliminated for the next round. The winner is the last one dancing. This provides great practice of listening skills, patience, impulse control, and emotional control.
Jenga This stacking game requires a steady hand, concentration, careful planning of movements and waiting one's turn. The frustration of losing is softened by the fun of seeing the tower fall, so it’s an especially good one to use to help turn a sore loser into a good sport, or to help someone who struggles with disappointment or surprises to better tolerate those uncomfortable emotions.
Mad Dragon is a card game similar to Uno, but incorporates coping strategies for reducing and appropriately expressing anger.
What Do I Feel is a card game that enables players to explore emotions and emotional control as they respond to different situations presented to them.
Executive Functioning includes a set of skills such as organization, planning and time management which are often the last set of skills to fully develop for gifted kids and teens. Different games can help your gifted child or teen strength these skills by building working memory, mental flexibility, concentration, organization and strategic planning skills.
Keep in mind, for people who struggle in this area, these games may be tiring and highlight their areas of need. Pay close attention to signs of fatigue like being distracted, fidgeting and irritability. At the first hint of tiredness or overwhelm, take a 5 minute movement break and return. Keep it positive. Take as many breaks as needed, and don’t worry if you need to end early. With practice, the skills being taught by the game will develop, as will the skills to reduce frustration as it arises.
Additionally, if your child or teen struggles with time management, you can incorporate a visual timer during game play to aid in time management and transitions.
Chess and Othello are excellent for building memory, focus and planning ahead. They are especially good if your child is exposed to a little bit of strategy to get them started.
Memory games are great for building memory and concentration skills.
Master Mind is a code breaking age which builds focus, strategic planning and tracking.
Scrabble is excellent for planning, building working memory and attention to detail.
Visual Brainstorms is a card game which develops flexible thinking with the use of puzzles requiring math concepts, spatial reasoning, logic, or sequential thinking as well as common sense. It’s funny game that makes learning a breeze.
Swish is a card game that build pattern recognition and critical thinking skills.
Minecraft is a video game that builds creativity, planning and can teach computer programming and circuitry concepts.
Kerbel Space Program is a video game which uses math and planning skills to launch rockets into space.
Cooperation and Social Skills All games with more than one player provide social interaction and the opportunity to learn and practice social skills. If you are hoping to take it to the next level, here are some games targeted for building different social skills.
TaliCor Consequences Is good for young children. It helps children and parents to recognize consequences are different than punishment. The game incorporates positive and negative consequences. There are great reminders throughout the game to do positive self care like hygiene, doing chores, and being cooperative with family members.
The Hygge Conversation Game is a card game made for ages 14+ which present different open ended questions meant to start conversations and promote story telling in groups.
Awkward Moment is a card game for middle school aged people and older. It presents players with different awkward moments and they are given different ways to respond to the moments. It’s a fun game that also helps people talk about uncomfortable social situations, and how to handle them in the least embarrassing way possible.
Pandemic is a great cooperative game for families with older children and teens, provided the idea of the game isn’t triggering. It requires all members to work together to save the world.
DiXit is an award winning, illustrated story telling, strategy game, sure to delight. It builds creative, social and executive functioning skills.
Dungeons and Dragons is a role playing game appropriate for middle school aged kids and older. It is a great way for players to express creativity and explore different aspects of their personalities.
Gamification doesn’t solve all of the problems of parenting or learning. Of course kids will still need to learn things outside of the gaming world, and will have some chores with no rewards, but it does provide a low stress, fun alternative to building skills needed for life as well as enriching relationships with each other. If you or your child could use a little extra support in building these important life skills, reach out to a trained and experienced professional in your area.
About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have survived past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body. Christy also offers online support to those anywhere in California.