Whole Child Education

Why we intentionally plan for children to lose at preschool

In the last twenty or so years, we have seen massive economic growth. This is even more true in China, where disposable income per capita has ballooned. It’s important to unpack how this growth impacts children’s ability to bounce back (develop resilience) and why preschools should respond by intentionally teaching children to lose.

Here at preschool, we have reconceptualized “losing” as an opportunity to learn. We are not glossing over losing as something that feels good, but we take the sting (or permanency) out of losing so we develop “resilient” children who can bounce back and learn. Before we teach children to lose, though, we must understand what it feels like to win for the current generation of children under seven.

“I WANT IT NOW, DADDY!” shouted Veruca Salt in the popular 1970s classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Veruca couldn’t wait and wanted everything in an instant. Do we want to grow a society filled with children like Veruca—children who cannot wait and think they should receive things just because their family has the means? Parents often express how they don’t want their children to follow the same rigid educational track they did, which is understandable. However, there is a real danger that the pendulum can swing too far the other way, where an increase in “permissive parenting” can create a generation of entitled children who do not experience the satisfaction of working towards a goal (delayed gratification).

Unlike Veruca, today’s children do not have to shout because they are born into a world of instant gratification—a world where dopamine is abundant—from video games engineered with carefully timed beeps to snacks with the perfect bliss point (salt and sugar) to an endless line of collectibles marketed through carefully placed adverts. It begs the question: Are we raising a generation of dopamine-loaded children for whom the thrill of winning (success) cannot compare with a computer game, app, or the many “kids’ snacks” available? In doing so, are we raising a generation of children habituated to instant gratification? And are we robbing children of the gradual journey to success (delayed gratification), where dopamine is dripped one drop at a time?

I find the quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” useful because the key here is Thomas Edison’s ability to bounce back and stay online (thinking brain), which might have enabled him to achieve his many inventions. On the Friday before our Preschool Sports Day, a kindergartener approached me and said he would practice running over the weekend as he wanted to win. I replied that practicing is a good idea. The student ended up being crowned the fastest boy, and the student who came second said, “A boy from my class is the fastest boy in preschool!” In the same week, I heard the story of a student who eagerly stopped her mum midway through dinner and said in English, “Mum, the PE teacher said we can win or we can learn.”

A few days later at our swimming competition, three teachers (including myself) were in tears watching a student resist help as she wanted to finish the race independently. That afternoon during the medal ceremony, our focus extended beyond the placegetters. We watched the audience and how they were genuinely excited about each other’s successes. The feeling of joy and unity was beautiful, and being part of it was a real privilege.

When children feel safe and valued, they stay in their social brain. At our preschool, every child belongs to a class family where they stay with the same teachers throughout the day. Our whole philosophy is steeped in building warm and responsive relationships. Why wouldn’t we target resilience and provide opportunities for children to lose (bounce back and learn) when they are in such a warm and small-class community? Why wait until children are older to let them experience this? It baffles me why so many preschools still use stickers and participatory awards so children don’t feel upset. Or commonplace is the typical three okays … it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, and a sticker. I always wonder, okay, for who? This pedagogy establishes patterns in a child’s brain that losing is horrible and everyone needs to win. In other words, success becomes an entitlement, or even worse, losing is something to fear. This sort of pedagogy is easy to implement but hard to erase.

Our pedagogical response, on the other hand, seeks to prevent children from having a meltdown that can send them into a fight-or-flight response, enabling the prefrontal cortex to take the reins from the limbic system shortly after children lose. Using intentional pedagogical strategies, we build up an experience-rich prefrontal cortex throughout the day, including a daily lesson called “emotional literacy” starting with our youngest class.

In Greek mythology, Dionysus grants King Midas the “gift” of turning everything he touches into gold. However, Midas soon begs Dionysus to undo the “gift” as he realizes that turning things to gold with a touch of his finger isn’t a gift at all. Children need to feel successful, and we need to let them go through the process of winning, losing, competing—the whole works—when they are very young. At the same time, we need to self-reflect as principals, teachers, parents, and grandparents about what we do and the kind of environment we provide, the type of technologies we allow children to access, and the food we put in their mouths—all of which can weaken resilience and motivation and, more importantly, rob children of the feeling of real success and the many opportunities winning and losing can provide.

Ultimately, losing isn’t everything, but ignoring it as some elephant in the room to be dealt with in the later grades is a disservice to this generation of young children growing up in a very different society from their parents.

Challenges are weaved daily into investigative play. Here a child is responding to a measuring challenge.


Each class works on a long-term project. Here children are pictured redesigning the bike track using the help of technology and other tools.


Voting is a regular occurrence at preschool. Children pictured voting for their favourite banner.


Questions are part of the every day at preschool. A child is pictured responding to an open-ended question.


The child in the picture attempted the challenge without worrying if he would be right or wrong.


Children pictured working on executive functions during an emotional literacy class


Children learning about the different arousal states


Children engaging in partner yoga


2023 Sports Day


Building trust with each other during emotional literacy.