"You're cheating! He's cheating! He's breaking the rules!" the siren loops echoed, swirling around and over the group of children pulling on different sections of a single, impossibly long rope. The rope was looped around logs, the loose parts platform, the boat, and the hickory tree. The rope had not been looped by the children pulling its sections, but by other children, maybe even the school year children weeks ago. The rope had just been there all week, underfoot and draped. It had effectively served its role well as an ignored invitation.
This play mob group of children had been jockeying for position trying to find a theme or project. It was Thursday and the feeling of barely contained mayhem built to a crescendo as the group suddenly noticed this blue rope that they had been running over and around all week. They each picked up different sections, roughly forming a team of many against a team of one to begin something that seemed like tug-of-war, except it wasn't. It was not that organized. It was just pulling.
There was so much energy devoted to the pull of the rope, the falling, the slipping, accompanied by fierce growling that details, large and small, went unnoticed. The others tried to win over the single child whose legs were braced but held the rope with ease. There was conflict. The conflict was the point though, wasn't it? His ease in holding the rope alone frustrated the others.
The thing about the whole yelling and tugging was that even though they looked like a group pulling on the opposite side, they were each holding a different loop of the rope. They may have had the feeling of pulling all together, against this unbelievably (and "cheating") strong foe, but they weren't. In fact, the pulling away or over the goal of tug-of-war would never happen BECAUSE the loops of rope were in fact secured on all those different fixtures. Their collected focus was directed so narrowly on the pull and the resist that they couldn't see how the task at hand would never be accomplished. And so it ended up being shouts about cheating and lack of fairness.
But to cheat, there has to be rules. There were no rules for the play. There was just the rope underfoot, the invitation to pick it up, and then the pull. How can you cheat when no one really agreed to the point of the play to start with? But wait, there is a play context for tug-of-war! Context tells the players that rope plus people times resistance and strength equals tug-of-war. But context also tells of a successful conclusion to the effort. Context tells us that all people on one side of the rope against a single foe will certainly result in a speedy and satisfying win.
This was not happening, but the players could not stop to wonder why. And the shouts were sent in order to show their frustration for NOT WINNING. Were we, the adults, supposed to fix it? Nope. The play sounded and looked unpleasant. The frustration was high and the accusations were keening. And still, no.
I did point out the idea of "situational awareness" because come on, what a great opportunity to do so. Look around. Take in the details. Will there be any winning today? Situational awareness is a skill you can take to the bank and what better place to find it than during a non-game of unwinnable-tug-of-war with secured ropes and no rules for the game.
Welcome to the mayhem and sometimes, maybe a lot of times, the mayhem is just the spot of play that you need.