“He always has to be ruler of the game,” she said of her older brother. “Should he be?” I asked. “No, sometimes I should be the ruler, but he won’t let me.” The older brother disagreed with this observation. He told us that he only rules the game sometimes.
Maybe it is not sometimes, but with some people. When a group of children play, a natural give and take is established. There are rulers of the game and others will add their own bits and pieces to the play arc. In the way of rulers, there are dictators and there are leaders. The first kind hits a lot of walls because they find it difficult to incorporate the ideas of others while the second folds these ideas in. They also fold new people into the game understanding the value of other ideas.
During our Tink camps, we get to observe mixed age groups in various play arcs. This is such a gift and perhaps one of the best professional development opportunities available for me. There are patterns visible that we do not get to see with younger groups, but many are the same. There will be solitary players and pairs as well as large roving groups. The primary difference is that we see a fast spin-up to a play arc and there are only 5 days to play it even if some children attend multiple sessions. Because there are new people leaving and joining each week, even a sustained play arc will take on new characteristics over time. The condensed nature of the camp session format means that one or two children who are really fast on their feet will shape the game. Then there is this interesting gap between how the other players will interpret that play arc and in turn, make their own contributions. Plus, there is the whole thing about how, through adult eyes, something is given a meaning or theme which is either right on or completely wrong. That is the game I play… the ‘guess what they are doing’ game.
For instance many years ago — I have told this story before and here it is again — a camper was laid out, flat on his stomach, on one side of our berm with just the top of his head showing over the ridge. He was using a thin branch to thwack the dust in front of him. I watched him and realized that what he was doing was reenacting bullets flying and hitting the ground in front of him. He was playing battle. In that case, I was right, but last week when I thought the children were using boards and blocks as weapons I was wrong. They had created a store and a bank and these boards and blocks were credit cards. One pointed to the red tape x on one of the blocks, “See you swipe your card here and get some money,” pointing to the bowl of poker chips behind him. And that was my first hint that there were actually two play arcs within something that looked like one.
The poker chips were inside a castle the whole group had built using every block in the school. Inside the castle keep was every bin of loose parts we had out, all stacked up one on the next. One faction was selling the items and the other was holding them. And just as with the outside version of the same play arc, none of this was for actual sale or trade. It was a hoard. But hoard wasn’t something the younger children had played while the older children, or rulers of this particular play arc/game, had played it a lot. The rulers of the game were playing a snatching and stealing game. The play arc featured hoards, raiding parties, and encampments. “Who has the most?” wins the game.
The rulers of the game were playing one thing and the other children were playing another. Kind of. Playing a stealing game is super easy. It is not a complex. There can be mayhem, intrigue, and fun, but it is fleeting. Kind of. And in the “kind of” is the conflict. And actually, a prolonged game of “who has the most” will often end in angry tears and “no fair” wails.
Here is what I say about that…bring on the angry tears and the “no fair” wails. Bring on the conflict. Sure, I would like for play to be all tidy and cooperative, but that is not what we do here. Here is your test site, your experimentation zone, your exploration with social context and interactions. Without this trial and error in leadership and support roles, interpretation and misinterpretation of other people’s motives and actions, and making mistakes and learning from others (I mean seriously, who turns a wooden bowl on its side to make a workable time machine? Time to escape!) we cannot move forward. We are left with a big ol’ mess in adulthood.
So I say Play! Play your little hearts out, you rulers of the game and store keepers, dragon hoarders, you time machine makers, and credit card swipers…Play, Play, PLAY!