Learning about rules and fairness

How kids explore rules through play

Tamara Thomas* is talking a lot with her mom about rules these days. Recently she recounted how a playmate hadn’t been following the rules and she’d told the teacher about it. “She felt she should go and tell someone, that it was a problem,” says her mom, Laura. “I wasn’t sure how to respond.”

Kids in the middle years are often very interested in rules and fairness. When confronted by this new-found passion, you might be tempted to say, “Sometimes life isn’t fair.” But kids this age believe it should be, and they can be pretty upset when the fairness rule has been broken. Just try cutting your seven-year-old’s birthday cake into less than perfectly equal pieces.

Play is vital to learning at this age and is about both fun and fairness. “Games with rules become part of children’s play from about age six onward,” says Christina Rinaldi, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Being fixated on the rules is completely developmentally appropriate at this age,” she says. Kids are still learning how rules work and applying them quite literally.

Following the rules is not easy. Say you’re playing a board game with your seven-year-old. Everyone has to roll the dice to see who gets the first turn, and it falls to someone else. “But I wanted to go first,” she says.

She may have understood the rule about rolling the dice, but dealing with the disappointing outcome requires some self-regulation. It takes time and practice for kids to be able to control their emotions, pay attention and delay gratification, says Rinaldi.

*Names changed by request.

Exploring rules

Some examples of the ways in which kids explore rules and how they work at this age:

• Rules can be changed. Imagine a gang of first-graders playing duck, duck, goose, when one of the players runs backwards when it’s his turn. Some of the children will know this is wrong and may be so thrown that they’ll leave the game. Others might laugh and decide that everyone has to run backwards. But this change in the rules will cause a few to complain: “That’s not the way to play it!”

“Temperament is a big factor here,” says Rinaldi. Someone who has difficulty with change will find this upsetting, while an easygoing child will be more flexible and able to move on.

• Rules can be broken. You’re waiting on the subway platform and your six-year-old notices people standing past the dotted ‘Do not cross’ line. “We’re not supposed to do that,” he says. “They shouldn’t be there.”

At this age, skills like negotiation, justification and rationalization are continuing to develop, says Rinaldi. “Kids are learning how rules are applied beyond their own personal world.” You might say, “It’s important that you follow the safety rules, even if other people break them.”

• Rules can be created. Your seven-year-old daughter and her friend are playing with animal figures. “How ’bout the pig is a dog,” one suggests. “OK, but how ’bout all the animals are dogs and they’re chasing the people,” the other says. “OK, but this girl is in the barn and they can’t get her. The barn is the safety zone…”

Child’s play at this stage can still include make-believe, says Rinaldi, but it’s more structured — there are more rules. So much so, in fact, that if you tune in you’re likely to hear more making and remaking of rules than actual playing. They’re trying to make sense of the game, says Rinaldi, so that they can follow the rules. “And they’re also learning to take the other person’s perspective. So there’s quite a bit of give-and-take.”

How should you respond to a child who’s upset because someone broke the rules? Help him calm down first, says Rinaldi. Then let him explain what’s bothering him and acknowledge his feelings: “You didn’t get to have your turn when you should have.” You may decide to go back and explain the rules. Your goal is to help him either succeed in playing by the rules or to adapt to a change.

As Thomas sees it, learning to follow rules and treat each other fairly is an important life lesson: “We want Tamara to know that fairness goes beyond making sure everyone gets their share so that you get your share too. When things are fair, or shared equally, everyone’s doing well.”

Fair play

Team sports help kids learn to play by the rules. But there’s a long tradition of childen’s games that you can draw on to encourage fair play around the kitchen table or in your own backyard:

Table games
• junior versions of Scrabble, Boggle or Bingo
• memory games like Concentration
• strategy games like checkers and Chinese checkers
• card games like Uno
• word games like hangman

Group games
• tag and variations like frozen tag
• capture the flag
• hide-and-seek
• Mother, May I?
• Simon Says
• Red Light, Green Light

Check out gameskidsplay.net for group game suggestions and rules. If you’re looking for table games, mastermindtoys.com has games listed by age.