There’s a fairly common view held by teachers of very young learners that competition doesn’t work well in the classroom. Generally they say this is because young children find competition stressful.

My sense is that very young children can’t relate to competition because it is a learned behaviour, and that human beings are naturally collaborative and communal rather than competitive.

I saw the effects of competition powerfully demonstrated at an Open Day the kindergarten I was going to work at.

As a part of the day, some of the teachers had organised games for the prospective students to play.

One of those games was musical chairs. Given that this was a new school in town, and most of the children had never been to kindergarten before, they had likely not experienced this game.

While some children were reluctant to join in initially, they were soon all having fun… until the music stopped.

As there was one too few chairs for the children to sit on, one child was removed from the game.

I still remember the look of bewilderment on his face. He had no idea that he had ‘lost’ and could not understand why he was not being allowed to play anymore… he was having fun!

The game continued, and child after child was removed from the game and consoled, like the student in the video above.

Except for one child.

He’d clearly either played the game before, or worked out how to win it. He was running around, very carefully staying close to the chairs, and would on occasion push other children out of the way to get onto a remaining chair.

There was something that never dawned on anybody involved with the game, or the school management.

That was that nine of the ten or 90% of the children left the game unhappy and discontent. These were nine children the school wanted to attract as new students in their school the next year!

More than that, the child who ‘won’, and was rewarded with a prize, exhibited exactly the kind of behaviours most teachers struggle with managing, and do not want in their classrooms or role modelled for others at school.

As a side note, many competitive activities would also be considered poorly designed in any case. This is because most of the students are actually not participating in the game, most of the time, because they are evicted.

And, as they sit down and watch the remaining students play, what kind of thoughts are likely to be going through their head? (Take the student in the video above, for example. What might he be thinking about himself, the other children, learning, the world?) This is especially the case if the student typically ‘loses’ these kinds of games.

A game that has no meaning on its own, has the power to crush a child’s self-esteem and engagement with learning.

And the teacher actually (unknowingly) created this through their activity choice and design.

Multiply that by the number of students that might have this experience, and you can see why competition directly leads to classroom management issues.

With older children, I’ve seen children that hate each other because of a competitive game played weeks, or even months before.

Sadly, I see some teachers set up some of the worst kinds of competitive scenarios in their classrooms: boys versus girls.

I still clearly remember the night in my young learners class the first time that the impact of this set-up dawned upon me. The girls team won a game, and were dancing around celebrating having ‘crushed’ the boys. I was actually shocked, and left that class feeling empty, vowing not to ever again set that up in my classroom.

While I would say that the vast majority of games I play are not competitive (and I never score games), I should say that I do use the occasional game where there is a competitive element or structure. For example, I do Slam! in triads with the ‘winner’ becoming the teacher. (Slam! is where you set out the mini flash cards on the floor (or a sheet of mini flash cards) and two students race to hit the flash card the third student calls.) These type of games turns over so quickly and have so many repetitions, nobody could be considered a winner.

Also, I remember a class with two of my Starter students playing pelmanism in pairs. Instead of piling up the cards that they successfully matched on ‘their’ respective sides of the grid and counting them up to see who ‘won’… these girls were putting them together in a pile at the top of the card layout. They were having a great time matching the cards and putting them together, and delivered a very powerful (and memorable) lesson to me: demo the playing of the game this way! Duh!!! So obvious, when its shown to you. (And so when I’m observing a small group play pelmanism now, when they finish a round, I’ll grab cards and lay them out in the new spread for them before they have the chance to count and compare.)

And so, as a side note, its often easy to adapt competitive games to remove the competitive element. For instance, with musical chairs, just don’t remove the chair! If you do, then you could have the student who doesn’t get the chair be the teacher and stay in the game. When you play Bingo!, wait until everybody has Bingo! before playing another round.

What seemed obvious to me from the original game of musical chairs at my new school, was that, what if all ten kids came away with an experience of having enjoyed the activity and their time at the Open Day?

What if the activities were designed so that everybody ‘won’?