Angry Birds, Happy Families
By Kelly Bartlett
My kids love Angry Birds. My son, who is 4, especially loves this game so much that I often wonder: if left to his own resolve, when would he say “when?” Even I have to admit that there is something quite satisfying about launching squat, furrowed-brow birds at tenuously constructed formations of wood, ice, and cement, trying to see just how much building material a well-placed hit can knock over. As entertaining and captivating as this game is for me and my kids, my reservation is with the limited interaction it offers us. The benefit of AP is in the physical, emotional, and communicative interactions we parents have with our children; it is in these interactions that we form meaningful connections with each other, thus forming the “attachment” of attachment parenting. It’s something that Angry Birds can’t quite provide. Or can it?
I wondered if there might be a way to embrace the understandable appeal of Angry Birds and let my son play while also making it more interpersonal for both of us. One day, my son and I headed to the playroom to create our own real-life Angry Birds game. We set up blocks and action figures in three-story “buildings,” made a slingshot out of rubber bands, and gathered the most round, appropriately-sized stuffed animals we could find for ammunition. Our family meeting board became the score board, and we took turns launching, destroying, re-setting, and recording each other’s stars. It took a several trials before we achieved optimal spacing and set-up, and we discovered what types of block formations constituted easy, medium, and challenging levels.
Needless to say, my son loved it. We had a very enjoyable morning together, and I felt so much more connected to him than I do when he plays on-screen by himself, coming to me only when he needs help with a level, or letting me know from across the room, “Hey Mom, I did it!” when he wins. At first thought, the reasons for that are obvious; we connected because we were interacting together. But our morning of game creation didn’t directly explain other events of the day, or, more accurately, non-events: Why did the rest of the day go so smoothly? Why didn’t we encounter our usual behavioral/ parenting challenges? Why was he so much more agreeable than usual? Why did he say, “OK,” when might normally have said, “No?”
The answers to those questions lie in understanding how playing games helps set a foundation for positive discipline. A lot of brain activity is going on during play time, and if parents are playing with their kids (as opposed to being bystanders) this brain development affects everything from emotional perception to effective communication.
Playing Fosters Brain Development
Playing together involves three areas of the brain that, when developed together, improves children’s ability to think logically, combine new ideas, and solve problems. Dr. Margot Sunderland, author of The Science of Parenting explains that when playing games, children must start with a conscious awareness of the activity; that is, they pay attention. Then throughout the game, they extract meaning from the information their brains receive, and finally are able to strategize and plan their next move accordingly. Playing is a whole-brain experience.
Dr. Sunderland also points out that playing activates our brain’s seeking system, a function that triggers us to not only explore our surroundings with curiosity, but seek out long-term pleasures and satisfactions. Sunderland says, “This creative union between their lower and upper brain is responsible for many activities from a child’s desire to build a magnificent castle to an adult’s turning a dream into a successful business.” The seeking system is what gives children the motivation to achieve their goals. Playing helps develop this.
Children relish the opportunity to shout, “A-ha! I got you!” Even a simple exclamation like this yelled during a rousing game of Nerf dodge ball indicates that playing is conducive to communication. Playing together allows parents and kids to interact and develop a comfortable way of communicating with each other. By playing with our kids, we are also able to gain an understanding of their perspective; a better view into our child’s world.
Games that involve person-to-person contact release positive behavior-promoting chemicals in the brain. The release of opiods, oxytocin, and serotonin helps strengthen the bonds between parents and children. When that bond remains strong, challenging behavioral situations decrease and discipline becomes less intense overall. Moreover, Dr. Sunderland states that when played on a regular basis, person-to-person contact games naturally inhibit children’s impulsiveness; kids are able to sit still longer and have an increase in focused attention.
Brain Development Strengthens Relationships
Play time is not just healthy for kids, but for parents too. Although adult brains are fully mature around 21-30 years old, we are still using the same parts of our brain as children when we play together. A “Yay!” moment during a cooperative game elicits the release of the same feel-good chemicals in both the parent’s and child’s brains.
With the physical contact, natural communication, and corresponding brain development that game-play brings, comes emotional connection. When we play with our kids, we get to share all of its experiences. We laugh together, perhaps even cry. We share an appreciation for each other’s efforts and accomplishments. We cheer. We touch. We make eye contact. We console and congratulate. In short, we are active participants in our children’s emotional development. Sharing these experiences with them physically, verbally, and cognitively connects us on an emotional level and builds stronger relationships.
Strong Relationships Ease Discipline
This gets back to the question of why my son and I had a surprisingly great day after our morning of live-action Angry Birds. Playing is a way to connect, and connection is the foundation for effective discipline. With a secure foundation, discipline issues are significantly reduced.
Often, when we experience uncooperative behavior with our children, it is because they are really trying to communicate an unmet need. According to Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, most needs fall into one of four categories: attention (children need to be noticed and involved usefully), control (children need to have choices and feel useful), empathy (children need validation of their feelings), and competence (children need to know that they are capable and they belong). Playing together meets many of these needs for a child. The challenges involved in a variety of games meet both the physical and emotional needs of children, thus reducing the likelihood that they will surface later, disguised as inappropriate behavior. By playing games with our kids we are disciplining proactively by creating favorable conditions for optimal behavior.
Playing allows us to be more tuned-in to our children. It aids our communication on a fundamental level, as well as strengthens our emotional connection and relationships. Regular play time with parents allows kids to express their needs more easily, as well as gives us an easier time understanding them. But essentially, playing together meets children’s needs more readily in the first place and helps lay the foundation for successful behavior.
Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator, an API leader, and a contributing editor of The Attached Family magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.