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.


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

Just Have A Go: A Motto for a 21st-Century Education

I am sitting cross-legged on the living room floor surrounded by my sons, some tools, and the GroClock innards.

If you’ve never heard of the GroClock, it’s a special clock designed for young children that lights up and displays a yellow sun once it reaches a pre-set wake-up time. In theory, small children would stay quietly in bed until the sun appears. In practice, my youngest quickly figured out how to press enough buttons to make the sun appear at 4am before bursting into my room and brightly announcing, “The sun is on my clock!”

No, I did not disassemble the GroClock in a sleep-deprived fit of rage. Instead, I purposely took it apart with my sons after watching Gever Tulley’s Ted Talk, 5 Dangerous Thing You Should Let Your Kids Do. Tulley challenges parents to allow children to take apart the first household appliance that stops working.

Why would I accept such a challenge since tinkering with appliances is so far out of my comfort zone?

Because I recently embraced the motto, “Just have a go!

Just Have A Go

I have come to love this British expression as an American living in the U.K. It means to simply give something a try regardless of the outcome.

Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try. -Jack Canfield

Our children are growing up in a rapidly changing world. Artificial intelligence and automation are replacing manual jobs.

Change is inevitable. You can’t ignore it. There’s a huge shift taking place right now and it’s disrupting entire industries, businesses and jobs around the world — and it’s called Digital Transformation.

Our children will need to adapt to these changes. Since the rate of change is so rapid, we cannot even begin to predict what their future will look like. What jobs will exist when they are adults? The only thing we can do is prepare them to embrace this change and see it as an opportunity to grow.

Many discussions around the nature of a 21st-century education focus on encouraging creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. The 4 C’s will be critical in the future, but fostering a “have a go” attitude must underpin all of these other soft skills so our children won’t freeze up in the face of change.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

How do we as parents and educators foster a “have a go” attitude at home and in school?

10 Ways to Foster a Have a Go Attitude at Home:

  1. Make Mistakes– Don’t be afraid to admit you’ve made a mistake in front of your children. Model learning through these mistakes and trying again and again.
  2. Tinker– Enjoy taking things apart, manipulating objects, and putting them back together in new and different ways. If something breaks, take it apart with your children, see how it is made and even have a go fixing it. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry — just enjoy the process. Get a classic set of Lego and hide the instructions. Try to create your own original models. You will find that your children are far better at it than you are.
  3. Go Along With Your Child’s Interests– Give children the freedom to follow their interests whatever they may be. My youngest was obsessed with Halloween. When I finally stopped trying to get him interested in something more educational like dinosaurs and I just went along with his Halloween obsession, he really grew.
  4. Create Things– Create products and learn through the process. Encourage kids to create books, e-books, voice recordings, songs, plays, slow-motion, stop animation, and high speed videos, models out of recycled goods, art, dioramas, etc. Stop worrying about perfection and just let them do it however messy, ugly, or unusual it may be.
  5. Hold an Art and Design Reception At Home or in School – Invite grandparents, friends and neighbors over to eat some snacks and view some art, sculptures, and models made by your children. Hey, modern art isn’t always pretty!
  6. Play with Tech– Allow children supervised play with technology. When my youngest got a child’s version of a Go Pro video camera for Christmas I groaned and wondered how I would find the time to read the online manual and figure it all out. One day I just handed it over to him. Within minutes he had figured out how to do slow motion, stop animation, and fast motion videos simply by pushing buttons and playing around with it.
  7. Cook– Cook together. Try out recipes using the metric system. Look at the numbers for half of a liter, a quarter of a liter, etc. Your child’s math and science teachers will thank you. Let children create their own recipes as well. Maybe they will be the next celebrity chef or invent the food of the future.
  8. Try Out a New Learning Platform Together– My eldest and I are both trying out Khan Academy. He is doing the really amazing “Pixar in a Box” unit and I signed myself up for a refresher course in Algebra. Not only am I brushing up on my numeracy skills, but I am also learning how the program works so that I can help my son with it.
  9. Have a Creative Show and Tell– Designate a moment in the week where each family member can showcase something they have created. This includes the parents. Each evening, a different family member shares something he/she has created. The possibilities are endless. Parents might even share a problem they solved at work.
  10. Take the Pressure Off– This is the most important guideline for encouraging creativity and fostering a willingness to have a go. There is only so much time in the day. Do not beat yourself up if you are not doing all of these great things with your children. Work on adding one idea to your daily routine. It may just be creating a space with accessible art supplies or Lego blocks so that your children can have a go. If they know they will have the opportunity to share their creations with the family they will be far more motivated to create. Who knows — you may even find a new talent or interest in the process as well!