Christopher McMaster is a special education teacher working with at risk youths. He has previously worked as a special education advisor for the New Zealand Ministry of Education and has extensive teaching experience across the globe, including teaching both mainstream and special education in the USA, UK and New Zealand..

Here, he answers some questions about his new board game, The Choices Game, which teaches young people how to stay safe in social situations.

[Photo: Christopher on Mount Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.]

Tell us about your background and your work with vulnerable young people.

Since the birth of my first child I had a desire to specialize in Special Education. I finally got that opportunity when I moved to the State of Alaska (I was a classroom teacher in the United Kingdom for seven years prior to that). In Alaska I worked with many young people with high needs, developing individual education plans, working closely with families. I worked closely with colleagues and students with emotional difficulties. I was able to continue this in New Zealand, working also with school administrators and the whole mechanism of implementing successful programs in schools.

I see every student I have ever worked with as a unique human being, part of a family where they are loved and valued, or I should say a unique person who, like the rest of us, wants to be loved and valued.

Where did the idea of the board game come from, and how did you develop it?

I was attending an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for a girl of about 13. She had been taken advantage of by a boy during a ‘truth or dare’ game because she didn’t have the skills to say, ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’ The story made me both sad and angry, and gritting my teeth I thought, ‘How can we teach these vulnerable kids how to protect themselves?’

I started sketching designs that would later become the Choices Card in the game. I knew there were many resources out trying to teach safe choices, but what was missing was a resource that could both be fun and be an avenue for honest discussion. I wanted to provide something that could lead to more generalization of skills. After playing the game, after reviewing the scenarios, any role-play or practice in a different setting could be reinforced.

What kinds of things get in the way of vulnerable young people making the right choices – or understanding that they have choices?

Sometimes we adults make the mistaken assumption that young people have acquired the skills they need to be safe, when these skills often need to be explicitly taught. Sometimes a person that is being taken advantage does not realize they are being used, or they may on some level feel uncomfortable but not know how to express or act on that feeling. Rather than hoping for the best, we can prepare our vulnerable youth as well as we can by familiarizing them with some of the risks they may encounter and teaching that they can make choices—empowering them to be able to say ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’

It is important to explicitly teach choices that will help keep our youth safe. The Choices Game is all about teaching that we all have choices. The scenarios in each Choices Card help familiarize and address different situations—they bring out into the open what can be difficult situations and helps foster discussion and more familiarity with them. Each game also includes blank Choice Cards so that situations that may be specific to a certain individual or group can be included in the play.

The booklet that accompanies the game is meant to help facilitate the game and discussion that will arise. Playing the game and exploring the scenarios may be one of the few, or even only, times a young person will get to talk about what they may be feeling, have experienced or seen. The guide book has been provided so that any one– teacher, teacher aid, parent/carer– will be able to preview scenarios and encourage exploration of themes. The role of facilitator is important, giving the player more opportunity to link each scenario to a real life situation. This will help cement learning and encourage generalization.

What positive changes would you hope to see in a vulnerable young person as a result of playing your game?

The obvious hope is to see a young person having the confidence to make a positive choice. That would be pretty magical to witness. Lots of times, though, these things happen when we’re not around to watch. It’s those times, when we’re not around to protect, that this game is designed for.

What is your favourite board game?

I have fond memories of playing the game ‘Sorry’ as a young boy — that is the game where your four pieces are racing around the board trying to reach ‘home’. When you land on a spot occupied by another player you take off that player’s piece and put it back at the beginning where they would have to start all over again.

My mom would infuriate us kids by being too nice; she just didn’t want to upset us. But we seemed to relish sending each other’s pieces back to Start. It was always a very noisy affair!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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