Childhood-development specialists name three criteria essential for group games that assist in children's moral development: the game has to have something interesting and challenging to figure out; the game needs to be one where the children themselves can assess their success; and all the children should be active throughout the game.

Chess

A key moral goal for games that are competitive is that the child can learn the distinction between competition and antagonism. Children learn how to compete, but they do so within the constraints of rules. Internalizing the rules becomes a model for internalizing more complex moral principles later in life. Ben Franklin said as much in an essay entitled "The Morals of Chess." Chess, said Franklin, teaches youth about caution, circumspection and the "consequences of rash action."

Action Games

Younger children find several types of games simultaneously interesting, challenging and active -- the three criteria that are essential to engage children for the purpose of moral education. These types of games include aiming, races, chasing, hiding, guessing, verbal commands, card games and board games. Content matter in these games. Aiming a dart at a board is morally neutral. Aiming a toy gun at another person is not. A board game that teaches children about nature has one kind of moral content, while a game about business -- where success is gained at another's expense -- has a different moral subtext. Video games can also be added to that list, though many video games include elements of aiming, racing and guessing. Many video games, however, contain elements that run counter to what most parents and educators would qualify as moral.

Questioning Competition

Deciding on games that teach morals to children is more subtle than it may first appear. It necessitates defining morality, and then determining what is right or wrong. These are not uncontroversial issues. Morality is about more than values and is more general than ethics. Values involve choices that may not suggest right and wrong, like food preferences. Ethics are dilemma-resolution guidelines that are specific to a particular practice. Morals, on the other hand, involve the motivation to do a thing because it is right, or to avoid doing it because it is wrong.

This being the case, some parents may be uncomfortable with competition as the vehicle for learning morality, because competition tends to undermine empathy and cooperation -- the bases of a selfless moral code, which views winning and conquest, even writ small, as antithetical to moral action. Parents and educators in this category have some alternatives.

Competition Alternatives

Kind Book is a publisher that emphasizes the development of empathy as the basis for developing children's moral sensibilities. In its books on the virtues of kindness, the company includes stories, exercises, picture coloring, writing exercises and games. One such game involves asking moral questions, for example, "Should we be proud if we are rich?" A ball is rolled toward each of the circled children, and if the answer is "no," the child is to let the ball go; if the answer is "yes," he must catch the ball. If a child gets the answer wrong, the whole group stops for a discussion. One Thai Buddhist game developer has introduce a video game that revolves around teaching children not to lie, steal, kill, commit adultery or drink alcohol.