The other day a participant in the 8 to 10 year-old Maker Class asked during an activity: “Is this a competition?” Which was kind of the question I was waiting for. I had divided the group up into pairs and given them all the same challenge: to build a tower as tall as they could out of cards using these handy connectors we have. So there was definitely a collaborative element within the pairs, but there was this hint of the possibility of competition inherent in the challenge. Who could build the tallest tower? That’s not how I phrased the challenge but it could have definitely gone in that direction.
In answer to the question, “Is this a competition?” I simply said “No. It’s not a competition.” And for some reason they took my word for it. Which does not always happen. If they had turned it into a competition, I would have gone with that flow in a matter of fact way, not egging it on but not discouraging it either. Afterwards we would have had a lively discussion about competition, collaboration, motivation, and innovation. Darn it, that would have been interesting. I should have said, “Yes. It is a competition” and observed the results.
But I didn’t this time and here’s why. At Talking Stick we downplay the importance of competition. We don’t forbid it in any way but sometimes I find myself ignoring it when participants get competitive with me or with their peers. Sometimes, I ignore it when it seems too important to the person. Like their sense of self-worth is riding on them winning and someone else losing. When we shift emphasis from competition to enjoyment of the game or the acquirement of new skills, young people tend to follow our lead. If they use put-downs when they win or cry when they lose, I ask them questions about how they are feeling and what they are thinking about what just happened in the most non-judgmental way possible.
Yesterday I was playing a great game called Quorridor with a Maker participant. The object of the game is to get your pawn to the opposite side of the board. On your turn you may either move your pawn or place a wall. You may hinder your opponent with wall placement, but not completely block him off. Meanwhile, he is trying to do the same to you. The first pawn to reach the opposite side wins. It’s one of those “educational” games that your aunt gives you for your birthday and you take it to the thrift store still in its packaging. Then I come and swoop in, bring it to Talking Stick, and have a great time exploring it with participants. It helps that there are no electronics to compete with “educational” games at Talking Stick.
Anyway, I play to my opponent’s level. Playing is foremost a developmental experience for them so me beating the pants off them every time, or letting them win every time, is not going to help with that. I like to have them win first but sometimes that is not always possible, especially when I cut it close. So I played Quorridor with this particular young person and I was not sure how she was going to react to losing. I beat her by one move but still her face fell just a bit, so I said, “Do you want to play again? Whenever I lose a game I want to play again to give me a chance to win. Do you do that too?” She smiled and agreed to play again and then proceeded to win without me needing to hold back. She had gotten the hang of the game and figured out a general strategy. I brought attention to the winning and losing aspect in a way that showed I could relate to her feelings about losing without making a huge deal out of it. At Talking Stick we don’t want the focus to be on winning or losing, but all the connections we make as we play more and more adeptly.
The competition issue is going to arise again in Maker Class. So we will have other opportunities to discuss and make sense of our competitive experiences. I am especially curious because some of their card structures never went beyond the first level. Would competition have given them that extra motivation to think and problem solve quicker? Would competition have helped them to collaborate better? I wonder how to facilitate them experiencing competition with grace and dignity. How to help them understand that losing or winning is not a reflection of who they are as people or their relative value as people, but just part of playing the game.