A Gameful Approach to a Growth Mindset

How to Help Your Children Embrace Challenges

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

“I can’t do it! It’s too hard!”

Wiping my hands on a dish towel, I walk into the living room just as my son is pounding his fists on the piano keys.

How am I going to handle this one?

What is a Growth Mindset?

If you are a parent, you have likely encountered Dr. Carol Dweck’s ideas about people having either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.

According to Dweck,

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. [Alternatively], In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

As a parent, I try to encourage my children to have a growth mindset.

One way I do this is by asking them to share something hard they have done each day.

My sons share their hard feats with pride and I always tell them about one of my challenges as well.

But when confronted with a challenging situation (like playing a piano piece with both hands together for the first time), my sons still have meltdowns.

How to Handle a Caveman

Right now I have a crying, red-faced 8-year-old boy on my hands. A lecture on the benefits of a growth mindset is not going to help.

He just wants to go play. In his eyes, he has served enough time on the piano bench.

Dr. Harvey Carp says it best on his website, The Happiest Toddler on the Block:

Many parents try to console their flailing, angry tot with logic and reason…but often that only makes things worse. That’s because even calm children often struggle to understand our long-winded explanations…and when they’re angry or frustrated, they may not be open to hearing even simple soothing comments.

Now my son is no longer a toddler, but I still recognize when he switches into caveman mode. There is no reasoning with him. It is time for stealth tactics.

Time for a Gameful Approach

In her book, Super Better, Dr. Jane McGonigal, a game designer and the first person in the world to get a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers, says that a gameful approach can help you access your “heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination” (pg 1).

I believe this approach may also help children strengthen their ability to cope with difficult tasks.

Dr. McGonigal writes that being gameful means:

Bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games – such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination – to your real life. It means having the curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success. (Super Better pg 3).

My purpose in adopting a gameful approach with my children is to help them take these skills and apply them to difficult school assignments, demanding extracurricular activities, and any other challenging situations they might face.

Making the Connection between Video Games and Real Life

So we return to my frustrated 8-year-old son at the piano.

I casually ask, “What is the hardest thing about survival mode in Minecraft?”

My son stops crying and looks at me as if aliens have suddenly possessed me (probably because my usual technique to get him to practice is to threaten to take away his Ipad time while he unhappily plays his piece the required amount of time).

He finally decides the body snatchers have not invaded our house and he answers my question.

I hear all about the skeletons, zombies and even spiders that attack at night when a gamer is in survival mode.

And I really listen.

“Why don’t you give up when all the bad guys start killing you?” I ask.

“Because I know I can figure out how to defeat them,” he answers.

“So, defeating a zombie is a bit like trying to play the piano with both hands.”

My son looks at me defensively.

“It’s a challenge. And something you won’t be able to do the first time you try it.”

I Issue a Challenge

“I think you will make at least 10 mistakes when you play your piano piece today,” I tell my son, “but hopefully tomorrow you will only make 8, and then 6, and then 4…”

“I won’t make 10 mistakes,” my son interrupts.

“Of course you will. It’s really hard to play with both hands the first time you try.”

Now I have him. I have issued a challenge and he is ready to prove me wrong.

And he does. He gets through the piece. He makes a few mistakes, but he feels good because it’s nowhere near the 10 mistakes I assumed he would make.

Gamification

As I researched this article I came across a post suggesting that the gamification of children is bad.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of now. Our kids become obsessed with getting A’s — they dream of the next test to prove themselves instead of dreaming big…A by-product of this is that we’re making them dependent on the validation that we’re giving them — the gamification of children.

Whilst I agree that we shouldn’t encourage the gamification of our children, we certainly should encourage a gameful approach to challenging tasks.

As our children face challenging tasks and situations let’s change the language we use with them.

What if we reframe hard tasks as challenges and opportunities for growth?

What if we look at teachers, parents, helpers, and friends as allies in the game?

What if we use power-ups (mini-breaks like drinking water, deep breathing, even doing pushups) to give us the energy we need to persevere?

And, what if we give our children a secret identity to help with the challenge?

My son is now Ollie, the piano buster.

Stay tuned for more exciting adventures tomorrow after school…

Photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

Why Gamify? How to Use Game Dynamics to Make Learning More Fun

“What’s 4×8?” I casually asked my son after breakfast one morning.

“That’s easy, Mom.”

“So, what is it?” I asked.

“I don’t want to do this right now.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not part of my homework.”

My son eventually gave me the answer, but the painful experience was not the way I envisioned a quick little multiplication review after breakfast. In fact, I would call my attempt an epic failure (to use my son’s lingo).

My son could count by 4’s, but he didn’t have his multiplication facts memorized. I tried the old-fashioned flashcard technique and was met with resistance. I even loaded a multiplication app onto the iPad, but he still couldn’t answer my rapid fire questions. I needed a new strategy.

A few weeks later I came across Gabe Zichermann’s Ted Talk How Games Make Kids Smarter. This was my first introduction to Gamification. I got really excited about its potential applications for education. Gamification could make learning more fun and allow me to speak my son’s language at the same time.

What is Gamification?

In his book, Explore Like A Pirate, Michael Matera, defines gamification this way:

Gamification is applying the most motivational techniques of games to non-game settings, like classrooms.

Since my son would happily spend an entire morning playing Minecraft, I decided there must be something to this gamification idea. If I could somehow make memorizing times tables as engaging as ‘Rayman Adventures’ it would be a win-win situation.

Matera, a World History teacher, uses gamification in his 6th grade classroom. When an Amazon reviewer wrote that if he could put his son in any teacher’s class it would be Matera’s, I was convinced to read his book.

The human spirit awakens when we are inspired and challenged to confidently go beyond our limits. The power of play brings back the natural yearning that exists inside all of us to learn. — Michael Matera

Why Gamify?

When children play games they are using skills that are involved in building fluid intelligence and developing problem-solving abilities.

In her article, You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximise Your Cognitive Potential, Andrea Kuszewski, a behaviour therapist and cognitive scientist, wrote about five elements involved with increasing fluid intelligence (your capacity to learn new information).

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things the Hard Way
  5. Network

By playing games, children are able to use all five of these principles at once. Therefore, gaming is a powerful, fun, and efficient way to promote fluid intelligence.

I was convinced. Now it was time to design a game to motivate my son.

Game Dynamics

First, I did a search for game dynamics. I found the following list to get me started:

  1. Create a Quest or Mission
  2. Assign point values to set tasks
  3. Include a time element
  4. Decide on Progression
  5. Allow unlocks for the completion of certain tasks
  6. Award Badges
  7. How to achieve an Epic Win!

Next, I had to apply these game dynamics to my own game design with memorizing multiplation facts as the objective.

Michael Matera mentions the importance of “fusing together the ideal amount of content, choice, and challenge” in game creation.

I knew I could spend days or even weeks trying to create the perfect quest for my son, but I have recently learned to let go of perfectionism and just get started. So I did.

I knew I could tweak my game as I went along and maybe even involve my children in its improvement.

I jotted down a few ideas and then presented them to my children one morning. I was definitely winging it.

The Mission

“Good morning warriors!” That got my sons’ attention.

“You are about to embark on a dangerous quest to defeat monsters, explore new territories, and race against time to find the Lariliean gemstones. Each gem will destroy a monster. If you deliver all 10 gems to Queen Alondra you will save Candyland.”

Yes, I know my quest was totally corny, but my children were intrigued.

My youngest wanted in on the action so I adapted the quest for him. He was supposed to practice reading the ‘tricky’ words his teacher sent home. I decided to give him 5 words to learn each week. He would get a gem when he could read them 3 days in a row.

The Reward (points, badges, in this case gems…)

I told my eldest he would ‘find’ a gem each time he passed a multiplication test. I pulled out some gems from my craft box to entice my son. Each gem was worth 100 points so my son needed to earn 1,000 point to save Candyland.

When he passed a timed multiplication test, I let him choose a gem. Then, we went online and looked at images of monsters. He got to choose which one he wanted to defeat. We printed it out and I let him decide how he wanted to vanquish the monster.

The Time Element

I gave my sons one week to complete each mission (e.g. one multiplication test or one set of 5 ‘tricky’ words). When they earned their gem they would unlock the next level (a harder multiplication test/5 new words).

Multiple Lives

Each of my sons started with 5 lives (5 chances to pass the test). If he ‘died’ on his first attempt he would practice and try again.

Progression

This was easy for the multiplication memorization. Ollie started with his 0’s and 1’s and progressed to his 2’s, 3’s, etc….The final goal was to complete a mixed multiplication task for an epic win!

With my youngest I chose the 50 most common sight words to read. For his epic win, he would need to read me all 50 words.

Results

We are now in the middle of our quest. If given a choice, my sons would still prefer to play Minecraft, but I am pleased with the progress they have made. When my eldest completed his 8 times tables last week he was so proud of himself because he had to work so hard to pass.

Now I am off to do the parent homework Michael Matera set in his book, Explore Like a Pirate. Won’t my son be surprised when I ask him to show me how to play ‘Gods of Olympus’ this afternoon…