How to Talk to Kids About Losing

  1. Updates

Kids struggle with losing during play every day.

Here are some tips, gathered from Playworks staff across the country, on how to empathetically talk to kids about losing, whether it be getting out in Four Square, missing the game winning basket, or not getting a chance to be “it” in the tag game. Regardless of if it’s before, during, or after a game, these tips will help alleviate negative feelings and create a healthy play space where every kid feels safe to make mistakes and just have fun!

Before the Game: 

  1. “Be Respectful” is often a school/organizational expectation. Define respect as being just as kind to yourself as you are to others. Ensure kids know what respect means as it relates to being a “good sport.” A “good sport” is someone who exhibits good sporting behavior like politeness, positivity, courage, perseverance, and respect for their teammates and opponents. Ask for words or phrases they might use to encourage someone who is feeling upset after they lost or got out of a game.
  2. Communicate to kids that no matter if they win or lose, positive self-talk can help them feel good and overcome a loss. Check out our tips and tricks for teaching positive language on the playground, and try teaching the Maze Game as a way to practice positive self-talk!
  3. Have everyone practice “brushing off the losses” from their shoulders before the game begins. Alternatively, teach students to take a Balloon Breath if they lose and are feeling overwhelmed or angry as a way to calm down.
  4. Remind kids before they play a game: they might lose or they might win, but what matters is they are active and having fun.

During the Game: 

  1. Model what being a “good winner” and “good loser” looks like. Adults should exemplify positive behavior by giving high fives, telling students “Good job, nice try” after being less successful, and modeling other displays of good sporting behavior. 
  2. Build lots of high fives, fist bumps, or foot fives into the rules. For example: If a students gets out during a game of Four Square, the other players must high five the the person who got out before they get into line. Or, while playing Penalty Kick Soccer, the goalie and kicker must high-five when they switch, regardless of who was more successful.

After the Game

  1. Avoid any language akin to “it’s just a game.” It’s important to name and acknowledge what a kid is feeling when they lose because that game feels very important to them. If a student is having a hard time after losing a game, try asking them a few reflection questions: What did they learn from the game they just played? What might they do differently next time? What’s something the student is really good at? Did they excel in that skill by practicing? What are skills used in this game that we could practice at recess?
  2. Emphasize that it’s our responsibility as part of a community to celebrate others and help them succeed no matter the context. The adult can model high-fiving each student and encourage them to high five another student who also played the game.
  3. Give time for students to give shoutouts or “appreciations” to someone on the other team who they saw playing hard or being a great sport.

These tips can be applied across all games and activities, but another thing to consider is teaching games that encourage collaboration, such as Key Punch or Toxic Waste Dump, where there is no “winning” or “losing” team.

Play is a great way to build communication skills, learn how to regulate emotions, and foster connections within a community. Since kids love to play, educators and coaches need to equip them with the emotional tools to handle winning and losing, so that they can feel the positive benefits of healthy play regardless of a game’s outcome.

Do you have other tips on how to talk to kids about losing? Tweet us and let us know!

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