Who doesn’t love games? They are great fun but they also teach us to exercise choices. What if games can be applied to concepts as tricky and experiential as communication, grit or managing emotions?
When Sreeja Iyer started the Young Achievers Program in 2011 as an after-school programme for children aged six to 16, she was aware of the big movement in game-based learning taking place in the US, although these games are used mainly to teach subjects. There are two or three small movements in colleges like Berkley and Stanford where games are used to teach emotions, specifically mindfulness, but there was nothing that was comprehensive and layered. “Many times, games have layers and under two layers or so is where the learning is hidden,” she says. “We have created almost 40 such games from scratch.”
How do we get children to learn the tools of creative thinking and rational behaviour choices? These are not tangible goals and cannot be learned by rote. Even masterful chess players are unable to apply strategy when it comes to their own lives and emotions. Game-based curriculum thrives on practicing a skill and applying it constantly in real-life situations so that children are able to understand emotions and choices and to navigate them. Says Gayathri Ananth, a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming – an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy - who counsels children and adolescents, “Children don’t have the tools to express themselves, which is why we use play therapy and game-based learning as an extension of this idea. It also gives a voice to the child because we as adults constantly want to make their decisions for them”
The Young Achievers Afterschool program conducted at the Sparkling Mindz preschools in Koramangala and Kalyan Nagar has games for varied things -- from managing emotions and lateral thinking to creative problem solving. Sreeja Iyer, who is an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cites the example of Randall’s Audition, a game that is used to teach communication. “First, a child needs to have an idea or thought and to convincingly communicate this to other people. Second, he or she should be prepared to defend this against counter arguments from the audience. Third, the child needs to convince his audience to accept his idea. We have seven characters of our own for games and one of them is Randall, a shy turtle who goes into his shell. With his friend Brainy Bee, who is another character in our gaming universe, Randall has learned to communicate. He is sharing his communication tools with the children.”
The game starts off with the facilitator explaining the rules, about how Randall learned to communicate and then the communication toolboxes that the children can use. Inside this toolbox, there are tools in the form of chippers, coins and cards and you need these to make sure that first and foremost, your communication is heard. To do this, you need clarity, volume and pace and if you mess up on these three, you cannot be ‘heard.’ You then progress to the next level when you understand and execute the ‘wow’ factor, which is when you use stress, pause and modulation to enhance communication.
“We tailor situations based on real-life discussions and interactions with parents and students,” says Iyer. “For example, you want to convince your teacher that you want to do a science experiment you are passionate about. Children are put in situations where they are allowed to feel afraid, allow to fail but they always pick up where they left off and start the game and set new challenges for themselves.”
Apart from the games, Iyer gives children extended connect activities that are more experiential. Parents are involved in these. Unlike activities, these games are largely a democratic exercise. They are played based on peer review and each game has its own rules and rubric.
Children always live in the present, so how can one possibly ask them about their future or try and understand the careers that interest them? The games again come to the rescue and aren’t just freewheeling exercises but are structured intelligently. “We start with every level with basics - curiosity, staying on task, active listening and speaking; then we move on to the next level, which is to manage emotions and use visualisation and logical reasoning. The final level consists of values. We ask the children what is important to them. One child told me that he wanted to score enough marks to make enough money. I asked him, how much is enough? The language with which you use to describe what you want determines the effort you are going to put in. Once he understood that, that was it, that was the ‘aha’ moment for him and we saw a huge shift in his attitude to work and his environment.”
One of the biggest things a game can teach a child is that failure is normal. Iyer narrates an incident where a boy in her programme was affected by his classmate’s suicide attempt. “Many parents ask us why their child is not communicating. The root cause is the child has told herself that I am not good, everyone will laugh, I don’t have an idea. We use games to work on these. Children develop a wide vocabulary of what are values and many possibilities, not just black and white,” she explained.