Safety Through Games
A few days ago, I went hiking with friends in beautiful Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco. Along came their two young daughters, ages almost-7 and 4. We chose a path that took us up from the mountain down to the ocean. Most of the path was a gentle grade, but on occasion the slope was more pronounced. For adults, the slope could be easily negotiated using the thoughtfully-placed stairs or rocks. For the younger children, though, these were a serious tripping hazard.
But kids know a good time when they see it and so, running forward, they would sometimes encounter the stairways before us – and on occasion would stumble. One solution would be for them to never run ahead of us. Well, good luck with that. Another solution would be for them to STOP as soon as we ask them to, once we realize they are getting too far ahead or reaching a dangerous terrain.
I could try shouting “STOP!” as necessary, but that’s no fun. I could try explaining the importance of stopping whenever I say “STOP!” and then practice that, but I suspected that wouldn’t be too much fun either for the children.
I decided to approach this as a game, rather than as an exercise in discipline. “Hey, you wanna play the stop game with me?” I asked one of the children. “Yes!” she replied with obvious pleasure. “How does it go?”
“Well, when I say ‘STOP’ you have to freeze and not move until I say ‘okay’, and when you say ‘STOP’ I have to freeze and not move until you say ‘okay'”, I explained. “Wanna try?”
She was thrilled.
I asked her to say “STOP” first, whenever she wanted. She made me freeze a few times, which gave me the opportunity to model the behavior I wanted from her – when she said “STOP” I immediately froze. If I accidentally took an extra step, I retraced my step and froze where I was when she said “STOP”. I didn’t move until she said “Okay.” And, of course, she loved it.
So when I said “STOP” she froze, too. I praised her lavishly on her excellent freezing and for waiting until I said “okay”. After we went back and forth a few times, I was able to ask her to stop regardless of whether I was in front of her or behind her, at various distances, and she waited without moving until I said “okay”. And, of course, I did the same for her.
This is an especially enjoyable application of two general principles:
1) Teaching using positive experiences and positive reinforcement results in persistently good performance.
2) Sharing power (i.e., giving both parties power over one another) implicitly communicates respect to the person you are working with.
This helped me feel much safer as we were hiking, since I knew I could get her to stop as necessary and wait for me. And it was fun – for both of us! Sharing power this way turned a potentially annoying and restricting–but very necessary–rule into a game, which we could both play.
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