October 1st, 2011

Game-Based Programs Help Youth Build Self-Worth

A program in Maine is utilizing adventure and game-based programs to help youth develop self-worth and become competent, connected adults.

The Game Loft is an affiliate program of Spurwink Services, which provides behavioral health, educational and residential services throughout the state. Almost 400 youths in the Belfast community participate and a number of other adolescents and alumni volunteer. In a move that seems retro nowadays – an activities center on non-electric gaming.

Games and activities include trading card and collectible groups like a Pokemon Club and Yu-Gi-Oh League, special events like a World War II tabletop miniatures game and a Role-Play Prep Group (an introduction to character development and game design) and participation in community events including Arts in the Park and Earth Day.

Programs are run on the framework of Positive Youth Development and aim to help youth feel physically and emotionally safe, experience belonging and discover self-worth, develop positive relationships, discuss conflicting values and feel pride and accountability.

The program was founded by Ray and Patricia Estabrook in 1998 and acquired by Spurwink in 2009. The Estabrooks are co-directors of the program.

Dawn Stiles, LCSW, president of Spurwink, wants to replicate the program at other Spurwink sites in Maine.

“It really is about keeping kids out of the system and developing those skills that they need for life,” Stiles says.

The program is free for children and provides a hot meal after school and lots of social interaction, she says. “(The Estabrooks) do so much education through this medium, both in terms of the role-play games and interpersonal interactions. They’ve got some great success stories about engaging kids.”

“We’ve never done prevention in the past. We’ve been a treatment agency and so this and a couple of our other community-based programs that we’ve take on is a foray into prevention work,” Stiles says.

“We’ve seen kids develop better relationships with their peers, and with their families,” she says of the effects of The Game Loft. “It keeps them engaged in healthy activities rather than being home alone or roaming the community in those lonely, unsupervised

(after-school hours).

“For some kids, it’s actually reengaged them in school in a meaningful way so their grades have improved.”

Patricia Estabrook says about 75 percent of the participants are boys, who tend to be attracted to games. She says many are behind their peers in social development. “We find that we deal with a number of kids who are rurally isolated.” To engage those youths, the program offers rides home several days a week and also has one satellite program in another rural town about 20 miles from Belfast.

Estabrook says that in addition to rural isolation, many children experience “technological isolation.”

“It’s particularly harmful for kids who naturally do not have good social skills. They tend to find it’s easier to use electronic media or social media online that allows you to have a lot of surface contact, but doesn’t allow you to do the really hard work of having friends.”

With The Game Loft, “We make sure that kids are not isolated and that they are interacting all the time,” Estabrook says.

Unlike online interactions where youth can just “click off,” Estabrook says at The Game Loft, “these kids are going to be with each other every day, so they have to work out their problems because if they don’t, the problems are still going to be there. We teach them how to work with each other and negotiate.”

Activities are run on three levels: children 6-12 work on socialization, understanding rules and expectations, give-and-take and how to win and lose graciously; youths 12-15 focus on intensive socialization, building verbal skills, decision-making in groups and leadership styles; and adolescents 15-18 focus on learning enough about themselves to be competent, confident, contributing, connected adults and volunteering with younger children and the community.

By Pamela Berard

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