It’s back to school time. So we’re starting the year off by learning how to gamble..
It might seem like a strange thing to teach a child, but unschooling is all about finding ways to introduce new concepts and work on areas that require further development. This isn’t just a game of Poker; it’s a maths lesson, it’s teaching probability, risk-taking, and learning to accept defeat. But the most important lesson here comes in the form of increasing Jaidens understanding another person’s perspective, which is often known as “Theory of Mind”
Theory of mind is the ability to understand other people’s emotions, intent, desires, and knowledge. Basically, it’s recognising and understanding that other people have their own thoughts. This is an area that people on the Autism spectrum often struggle with, Jaiden is no different. Rewind a few years ago, Jaidens speech therapist started playing connect 4 with Jaiden to increase his ability to understand this concept. He would focus only on his actions and didn’t think about the fact he had an opponent that was also trying to get 4 in a row. Whilst it started with many tantrums, tears and yelling, over time he learned to stop and consider his opponent’s tactics and pre-empt their next move. He went on to become quite a good connect 4 player, so we moved onto more advanced games like Cluedo and battleships.
After he’d mastered these games I taught him the basics of poker and eventually graduated to playing with chips. Not only did this help his maths skills, it taught him about probability as he had to decide which hands were worth betting on, and which hands he should fold. I explained that it is also a mental game because your opponent can play tricks on you, making you think they have a good hand when in reality they don’t, and vice versa. I am not someone who believes in letting children win just to inflate their ego or to avoid upsetting them, so our games of poker often ended in tears and frustration on Jaidens behalf, especially because he hates ‘failure’ and strives for perfection. It may seem cruel, but I think failure is a valuable lesson because every failure takes us a step closer to success. It probably took 30 games of poker, but eventually, Jaiden started to grasp the concept of when to bluff, when to bet, and when to fold and admit defeat. He wasn’t winning games, but he was getting closer.
We were having a late afternoon game and I was flogging Jaiden. I’d won about 10 hands in a row and he was quickly running out of chips. He dealt the hand and I got a pair of nines, which is a reasonable hand. I intended to try and send Jaiden all-in which would leave him with no chips, and I’d win the game. I made a large bet and Jaiden matched my bet, leaving him with only a few chips left. The next 2 rounds I didn’t bet and neither did Jaiden, I was pretty convinced he didn’t have a decent hand so I was going to send him all in and win the game. The 3rd card came out and it was a 9, leaving me with three 9’s, which is a very strong hand indeed, in fact at that point there was only one hand that could beat me, so the odds were in my favour. I bet just enough to send Jaiden all in and he knew that if he lost this hand, he would lose the game. To my surprise, he instantly pushed all of his chips in and I prepared for the explosion of emotions that had been slowly building after I’d won hand after hand.
“Oohh are you sure that’s a good move?” I asked, he looked at me, smiled, threw his cards down and revealed two aces. Given there was one Ace on the table, he’d hit 3 of a kind and despite my strong three 9’s, he won the hand and a hefty pile of chips. Laughing hysterically, he looked at me and said “You thought I had nothing because I didn’t bet, but I was waiting for you to bet because I knew I was going to win because there were no cards that could beat my 3 Aces”, and just like that the student had beaten his teacher, comprehensively. He sent me all-in on the next hand and proceeded to win his first ever game of poker.
The main reason I initially decided to home educate Jaiden was to focus on the areas of his development that would give him the best chance of integrating into society. Working with Jaiden to develop his theory of mind has been a long process but it’s had massive benefits, especially on his ability to engage socially with other children and this has resulted in him becoming more sociable. Instead of looking at failure or losing as a negative outcome, I have explained that it’s an important part of life, because if there’s no failure, there’s no progression.
Or, as I like to put it “Every loss is a lesson”