With nothing but a deck of cards, you can make a difference in a child’s life

To say I am upset with “the system” would be a giant understatement. I am just completely and totally disgusted at the treatment children get in this world. Their needs are routinely put last. In particular, I’m outright infuriated by doctors and psychologists. They should have stood up–strongly, uncompromisingly, persistently–for the importance of free play for children. And they didn’t. And NOW. Now that there is a epidemic of mental health problems in children, they are begging for children to come into their offices for treatment.

Frankly, children don’t need talk therapy. They need the right to be children.

From this, on a deep, moral, unwavering level, I decided it’s time to “take it to the streets.” In short, I strongly feel that doctors, psychologists, and other “professionals” can do little for children while in their sanitized offices. Children don’t need to come to you. YOU need to go to children.

Children need adult presence. They need adults to anticipate their needs, to plan activities, and to BE THERE. Instead of getting children into psychiatric care–which carries its own inherent risk as the child will, no matter what, see themselves as broken–we need to be coaches, mentors, teachers, and community mothers and fathers to children. Not because children were dragged to a building and finally given attention. Because by default they need us. By default we should be there. And by default we have an obligation to children who are not just our own.

But what could I personally do? I racked my brain. And I thought of it: math games. With nothing but a deck of cards, I could engage a child. What a great thing it would be to boost a child’s confidence and give them the gift of intellectual acumen.

I was nervous at first. What game should I start with? Where is a child, who is not my own, at in their math skills? Will they like it? Will it be too easy? I thought of a few games we could play, including traditional card games, and decided to roll with the punches. With a few “aces up my sleeve,” I could probably get a good game going, right?

A deck of card is easy to slip in your purse. Wrap a rubber band around it, and you have the power of a game at the palm of your hands. I was at a play date and saw a boy sitting by his mom, looking a bit bored. We were talking. And with the deck in my hand, I asked, “Would you like to play a card game?” He was floored. Taken aback, he said, “um…. sure!”

My daughter, 6, had reminded me of a game we play which is like Blackjack but in which you try to get to 0. Black numbers are positive and red numbers are negative. So I said, “I wanted to try a game like Blackjack but you try to get to 0.” He said, “What’s blackjack?” Oh buddy! What’s blackjack!? Guess what we’re playing!

Blackjack is the traditional card game, often found in casinos, where you try to get to 21. Each player gets one card dealt face down and another face up. You can keep asking for more cards until you want to hold. Whoever gets closest to 21 without going over wins.

I think the power of card games is that each player, including children, are given a hand. It instantly evens the playing field. Each person sits there, as if they are their own military commander, calling their own shots. They aren’t just adding numbers to add numbers. They are doing it for a purpose: to win the game. And it’s not really to “win the game.” It really is to get to 21. Just in and of itself. Because doing that is fun.

Make your move

When I play a new game with children, I always do a practice round. No winners or losers and rules aren’t followed. I explain the basics and take them through some scenarios. I like to slip in the joke, if I can, “Yeah. You might find this game at places that gamble. It’s illegal in like 15 states.”

When playing, another boy, aged 6, came up to play. He told me, “Math!? I’m good at math! I know times!” So I looked right at him and asked, “Oh. So do you know 2 times 3?” He thought and said, “6!” With a look of astonishment, I said, “Get. Out! You know that that is 6!?” And then with a playfully menacing look, I asked, “3 X 3.” And he said, again thinking about it, “9!” I feigned a look of astonishment. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should push him for 4 X 3. But I did. “12!”–from the 6 year old. And I said, “Ok. Last one. FIVE times three.” And with great bubbling pride, he said, “FIFTEEN!” It’s not that he knew his times tables. It’s that he got to show them off for someone other than his own family.

Before this, the first boy’s mom had told me he wasn’t that into math. Her other two children were but not him. I could sense she was a bit nervous about her son’s ability to do the math. She was doing the math for him at first. I don’t step in or judge. I just play. And in a few rounds, it was clear he could do the math on his own. The boy who “hates math” was enthusiastically adding numbers like 10 + 5 + 6. At the end he said, thoughtfully and slowly, “Blackjack…. I like Blackjack!”

As we sat playing, many children came over. We talked about risk. “Your choice sometimes is lose or lose. Sometimes you may as well get a card so your choices are lose or potentially win.” I said this about a hand when you have but 15. Sure, the next card will probably send you over. But the odds are very likely that, in a game of 4+ people, that someone has a hand that is better. So why not risk it? Life lesson, much?

It doesn’t matter if this turns into a repeat activity for us or them. Today, just now, I did this with children.

If you want more math game ideas, please see Denise Gaskins’ Math You Can Play series. Her first book in it is Let’s Play Math.

Amber documents the age-related stages children go through and is the author of Misbehavior is Growth. Send your friends to www.theobservantmom.com.

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