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The joy (and the power) of experimenting in the 'gamified garden'

I like to think of my back garden is a lab in which I conduct experiments in skill acquisition...

My experimental methods are backyard games...

My children are the lab rats!

So here is a story about my latest experiment...

My little boy Evan is 8 years old and he is mad about cricket. He's not fussed about watching it (he doesn't know who Alistair Cook is and has no concept of what scoring 10,000 test runs would be like!) but he loves to play.

Almost every day he asks to play and most days I am only too happy to indulge him and his 4 year old little sister Isla (although she always has to bat first and then has a massive strop when she gets out and storms off).

We have been playing off and on for the past 2 years or so. He has a plastic bat and we play with either tennis balls or plastic 'wind balls' which bounce a bit lower and are better for development.

One of the interesting things for me has been watching his technique develop with me giving him hardly any instruction.

We play games, a lot of games...

We have loads of them...

"Pressure 6"

"12 balls"

"Runner runner"

the latest one we called...

"Maker's name"...

Evan has developed a really effective 'pull shot' (a shot which he hits to his left in a baseball style for those that aren't into cricket). But the problem is that he wants to hit it every tine and their are times when the ball is in the wrong position to play that shot and him trying to play would get him out which was frustrating for him.

The problem is that he is a product of his this case and 'L' shaped garden.

Let me explain...

This is what our garden looks like...

The diagram (hopefully) shows that the best place for even to score his runs is to his left towards the patio. If he hits it straight then there is a chance that I will run him out or I will catch him out. So hitting to his left means that he can always score and is pretty safe from being run out.

I have been trying to get him to play other shots by bowling the ball in a spot to see if he would work out a way to adjust on his own. I have asked him questions about whether the pull shot is the right shot all the time. I have tried modelling a lot of other shots when it has been his turn to bowl but he always seemed pretty keen on hitting that pull shot.

So I got all 'Dr Frankenstein' on him and decided to do some experiments...

The ingredients that I used when mixing my experimental concoction were game constraints in the shape of rules, restrictions, targets and scoring.

First I said that he could get 6 points for hitting the ball over the fence over my head (previously it had been 6 and out!)

Next I gave 4 points for hitting the ball through the A frame of the swings or under the trampoline. Previously they were just runs.

Then I said that he didn't have to run if he hit the ball (previously we played that you had to run if you hit the ball which meant that he could get run out if he hit it straight back at me)

Then I said that he couldn't hit the ball to his left. If he did he was out.

And finally I showed him a shot where he presented the face of the bat towards the bowler and held the finish. I described this as showing the bowler the 'Maker's name' on the front of the bat. If he showed me the 'maker's name' then he got 10 bonus points.

He started playing shots on the other side of his body and trying to make contact to get the ball at the new targets. He had a bit of success and he also struggled a bit. I modelled a couple of times for him and reminded him of the makers name concept.

And then the constraint based 'chemicals mixed' in the just the right way...


If he didn't smash the next ball over by head for 6, hold the finish like a pro and claim that he should get 16 points (the little monkey had found a loophole in my clever scoring system).

Oh...and the delight on his face! He bounced up and down like a pogo stick and had an amazing smile on his face coupled with a great big giggle as he watched me walk out of the gate to go and get the ball from the front garden.

What was interesting about this experiment was the way in which he got so absorbed in the process of working out how to get the ball to the other side of his body. He did need a little bit of guidance, it helped him to have the 'makers name' as a visual image of a way to get success but the rest he worked it out for himself.

He couldn't get enough of the game and was asking me when we could play next the following morning.

Like Frankenstein I may be in the process of creating a monster...

It is a total joy though!

I highly recommend it!

So here are my takeaways....

  • Playing backyard games are great to develop skills.

  • Change the aim of the game and the game can change the techniques that the player uses in order to solve the problem presented.

  • This can be way more powerful in engaging the player in the learning process. It is exciting for them to think that they have discovered a method for themselves.

  • Having the emotional connection with that experience is more likely to see the learning retained.

  • This method is also powerful in getting them engaged and wanting to come back again and again. 'In the ongoing battle against the highly addictive digital narcotics that are video games this is extremely important'.


If you would like to have more information on how I am using my kids as experimental guinea pigs in my quest for new ways to coach and develop skills then subscribe to my regular emails and I will make sure each article is beamed to your inbox.

Subscribers will be getting advanced chapters of my forthcoming book entitled 'Silent Superpowers': How learning to shut up made me 10x the coach I was! You can read the blog post which inspired the book here.

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