It is expected that the ability to play a game, and tolerate the frustrations that go along with playing a competitive game, will emerge between ages 6 and 11 (Oren, Ayala. The Use of Board Games in Child Psychotherapy. In Journal of Child Psychotherapy, Volume 34, No. 3, 364-383). A socially and emotionally competent child will enter a competitive game with a desire to compete on equal terms, and will enjoy winning when playing by the rules. Failure or losing is not experienced as destruction, and rather than being anxious the child will experience tension. If they lose the game, the fully functioning child will not feel lost or inferior, but sad. The experience of losing is not generalized outside of the play situation.
I’ve been working on developing a chart to map out developmental expectations and behaviors of children while in counseling. Input is welcome!
|By age 4 we expect a child can regulate aggression and play simple games like chase, hide and seek
Children at this stage will show little interest in board games, or games that require following more than one or two rules.
|The regressed child may demonstrate disorganized play, be unable to take turns, or appreciate the give and take of even a simple activity like chase.|
|Between ages 4 & 6 children are learning about rules and developing their cooperation skills
Frustration tolerance is emerging.
Children will demonstrate inconsistency in their ability to cooperate and engage in a structured activity like a game. Simple games such as Cootie and Candy Land start to become interesting.
Children can usually play a cooperation game like Bambino Dino by age 6, but younger children may also be able to play this game.
|The developmentally delayed child may show little interest in reciprocal play, have low tolerance for turn taking, and may not understand or be able to appreciate the value of an interactive, turn taking, game.
|By age 6-7 we expect a child will be able to understand the rules and have the ability to play according to the rules. Some children are able to start participating in games specifically developed for therapy.
By age 7 some children are asking for games specific to their challenges, like The Angry Monster Game.
Children are beginning to take an interest in competing under equal conditions with others.
Children are learning to “wait their turn” and delay making a response.
|Children who are delayed may reject a game, act out, try to cheat, argue about the rules or make up rules.
Increased anxiety or stress may result in the child being less able to compete equally with others, and they may refuse to play a challenging game, cheating, or prematurely quit.
|By age 8-9 we expect the child won’t be unduly anxious about losing; they’ll understand the difference between a skill game and a game that involves chance. They’re developing a preference for games that involve some skill.
By age 8-9 the child understands that you are playing for yourself, and not for them. You won’t bend the rules, and they won’t try and move for you. They experience you as an opponent and don’t have a need to aggress against you.
By age 8-9 a child may feel a blow to their self-esteem if they lose a game, but it won’t last long. They are able to maintain a positive relationship with their opponent.
|Children who are delayed may prefer simple games of chance such as Candy Land; they may prematurely terminate a game, cheating and changing rules may still persist. They may over-estimate their skill in a game of chance.
Some children will reject games that they perceive as having a specific therapeutic component.
A child who is delayed may tell you how to move, try to move for you, or become indignant if you take the lead, or become passive aggressive.
Children who are delayed may resist game play; they may brag about their success outside of the session with a game they lost; blaming may occur.
|By age 9 children are able to cooperate and tolerate any type of game. They are able to generate reasonable responses to prompts presented in a game. The may reject a game like Candy Land that is entirely based on chance.
|A child who is delayed at this age may draw a blank, or frequently say I Don’t Know when a response is required during a therapeutic game. The therapist may have to be more active and provide many more suggestions than they would with a typical child.|
|Age 11 and up – The typical child will enjoy a game that challenges them and appreciate the goals of therapy and the purposes of the game. They’ll be able to talk about their issues and challenges. They are less inclined to play in the play room and appreciate the opportunity to play an age appropriate game.
|A delayed child may gravitate to games for younger children, and avoid games that seem explicitly therapeutic. Some children won’t play games at all.|
|By age 12 nearly all typical children have accomplished all the skills noted above.
|Teens – Typically enjoy therapeutic games and a challenge. They show some insight and appreciate the process of therapy. They acknowledge explicitly developmental issues such as sexual identity, drug use, responsibility, …||A delayed or defensive teen may focus on what a waste of time it is for them to come in and play games and may complain about therapy being a waste of money. They may give superficial responses, draw a blank, or ask to play a game that doesn’t include an obviously therapeutic component.
It is important to be attentive to where the child is developmentally. A child who has not yet developed an adequate self-concept is going to require more nurturing and support than a child who has a good sense of who they are and good self-esteem. It will be important for the therapist to have predetermined in advance, how they prefer to deal with various issues in therapy. For example, I have a rule that objects in my play room cannot be broken, and no one may hurt anyone. No one is allowed to hurt my client, and no one is allowed to hurt me. The first infraction comes with a warning, the second infraction results in the session being terminated. I do not expect all my clients to be able to follow the rules of a game. Devising and implementing new rules, self-serving or not, are treated the same way any activity in play therapy would be treated (see section on cheating). Some children will rationalize their “cheating,” losing, and minimize any success the clinician may have during a game. These behaviors become “grist for the mill.” Anxiety, which can be manifested as worry, aggression or fear, may need the support of the therapist in order to be contained. For example, a game may be discontinued, and only non-competitive games played, or only games the client is very good at may be played for a time.