This blog post was contributed by Astrid Cornelis (Thomas More).   

Playing games together is simple, cheap and fun. Moreover, a recent study shows that children with behavioral problems benefit from playing games with their parents (Healey & Healey, 2019).  

Playing with their parents helps children with behavioral problems

What if children with behavioral problems play games with a parent for half an hour every day? Does this affect problem behavior? Can playing a simple memory or exercise game together help the children? And does that show the same results as a parenting support program? These questions were explored in a study of children with behavioral problems (2019). The results? Playing structured games together for half an hour every day worked just as well as the well-known parenting support program Triple P (Positive Parenting Program): the parents reported less problem behavior such as hyperactivity, attention problems and aggression. This reduction persisted for 12 months after the intervention. 

An important take-away for the field of ECEC is that educators can support children with behavioral problems and their parents, not only through specific education programs, but also by encouraging them to play games together. That is a very simple, cheap and accessible approach that they can implement in their daily routine. 

Some examples of the games from the study: 

  • recreational game where you have to move at the speed of the called animal: cheetah (fast), giraffe (medium), turtle (slow) 
  • hopscotch: throw with a stone at a square and then jump towards it 
  • memory game 
  • the full game list can be found here  


Games stimulate self-regulation

Many children with behavioral problems have difficulties with self-regulation. These are essential skills to focus attention, to regulate emotions and to direct one’s own behavior. While playing structured games, for example, children learn to focus on the ball, wait for their turn, plan the next step and deal with frustrations when things don’t work out or go differently than expected. Despite the obvious benefits of play, children spend less time playing (Ginsburg, 2007). Busy calendars and more screen time replace the time to play together. However, this ‘just playing games together’ is a blessing for the development of self-regulation of preschool children. 


Self-regulation is a crucial developmental skill

A lack of self-regulation as a toddler is related to numerous difficulties in learning and development and also to problems in adulthood, such as an increased chance of health and mental problems, more chance of unemployment, crime and poverty. Researcher Healey (2019) says: “Self-regulation is essential for school maturity and success. You must be able to sit still, not just shout answers, continue a task, deal with frustrations and learn to give and take in social relationships. When we improve the self-regulatory capacity of toddlers, we can change the lives of many individuals.” 


How can educators promote playing games?

  • Regularly invite children with behavioral problems to play a game in a small group under your guidance. In this way they learn important self-regulation skills such as waiting their turn, dealing with frustration, respecting the agreements  
  • Inform parents about the importance of playing structured games together with their children. Not all parents are aware of this. Why is play important to their child? Give some examples of games and what children learn from it. 
  • Invite parents to the class to play a game with a small group of children. Game parents or grandparents ensure that there is a greater chance of playing games in a small group and at the same time the parents experience how many preschool children learn about it. 
  • Taking a‘game bag’ home can be a reason to play together. The bag contains the game material, the game explanation and an inventory of the contents of the bag. Choose simple games and sturdy materials. 
  • Organize an ’interaction’. The parents can join this parent-child activity. By introducing a passing round with game tables, playing movement games together, … parents get to know games that they can play with their child and experience the learning opportunities of the games. 


Reading tip: Jensen, H., Pyle, A., Zosh, J. M., Ebrahim, H. B., Zaragoza Scherman, A., Reunamo, J., & Hamre, B. K. (2019). Play facilitation: the science behind the art of engaging young children (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK. Pages 16-17 about the benefits of games.


  • Deterd Oude Weme G. & Van Tuijl C. (2012). The development of self-regulation. The world of the young child, November 2012. 
  • Ginsburg, KR Committee on Communications, Committee on Psychological Aspects of Child and Family Health. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds: Pediatrics. 119, 182-191 (2007). 
  • Healey D. & Healey M. (2019). Randomized Controlled Trial comparing the effectiveness of structured play (ENGAGE) and behavior management (TRIPLE P) in reducing problem behaviors in preschoolers. Scientific reports. Consulted on April 25, 2019, from 
  • University of Otago. (2019). Study highlights power of play: Structured play helps toddlers self-regulate, altering their life course. ScienceDaily . Consulted on April 25, 2019, from 
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The power of structured games for children with behavioral problems
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3 thoughts on “The power of structured games for children with behavioral problems

  • June 27, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    And children are so happy when playing games with their parents! Good to know it is also an effective intervention 🙂

  • August 18, 2019 at 4:18 pm

    As well as having parents and grandparents in settings to play structured games with children I think it would be a lovely way to have older children help in early years settings in schools.

  • January 24, 2020 at 7:22 am

    Thanks for sharing the information about the power of structured games for games for children with behavioral problems. I think your blog very helpful for more people.


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