Playing with Kids

Fun  Fairness  Inventing   Play therapy
No!  Freedom   Bood        Play chess


One of my favorite activities is playing, especially with kids. The kind of play that I like most, is somewhat more boisterous, when we are all able to laugh hysterically. What I wanted to try to do here, is describe some of the conditions that lead to play, and give some examples from my own experiences.

In my mind, fun, play, joy, laughter, creativity, spontaneity and care are all linked together. There is an implied absence of any element of malice. And in each other's eyes, we are equals...yes, even child and adult. In other words, the type of fun I am referring to, is not the type where you are making fun of someone else. When you are having fun, you feel joy, and this also means that both you and your playmates are getting your needs met. Play involves the ability to creatively pretend. My dictionary says play means to move or function freely within prescribed limits. So play involves the creative and spontaneous movement within a set of rules that one adopts. By laughter, I don't mean the type where you are laughing at someone, to hurt them, or saying something sad and poignant, followed by a nervous laugh, as in "laughing it off." The type of laughter I am referring to is that which makes your belly move. There is an old Chinese proverb: "Watch out for the man whose stomach doesn't move when he laughs."

In the December 1994 issue of National Geographic pp. 2-35, there is a most fascinating article and photo spread entitled: "Animals at Play" by Stuart L. Brown. After doing the study on play in animals, he did another study of 26 convicted murderers in Texas and found that the "profiles of 90 percent of these young men showed either the absence of play as children or abnormal play like bullying, sadism, extreme teasing, or cruelty to animals." His conclusion: "Play is an important part of a healthy, happy childhood, and playful adults are often highly creative, even brilliant individuals." Thus, a teacher observing kids on a playground, can easily determine at a glance, which kids are not playing, and then intervene and hopefully get them to play, and reduce the incidence of violence later in life .

So, let me give some examples. Children love to play tag. But how does a 50 year old guy play tag with an active 10 year old boy? I contemplated this dilemma, and I saw that it was going to be impossible to catch this youngster. I tried, but it was just hopeless. He was simply too fast for me! But I did admire his grace and agility in running away from me. It is a beautiful sight to see children run so effortlessly. So we had a small discussion about changing the rules to make them more fair to me (and others). I live in a condominium which has a nice pool deck, but so as not to disturb the other sunbathers, I suggested that we play tag in a small area, away from them. What I suggested we try, is limit our tag game to a concrete square about 3 by 3 feet! The boy looked at me a little incredulously and thought this was not going to work, but consented when I said, "let's give it a try." So we decided who was "it" and the game was on. Now, usually, in tag, there is a pause after being tagged, where you wait a few seconds before chasing, but the boy did not seem to be aware of this rule, so we did not use it. So this is what happened: I am "it." I tag the boy, jump back, but because the square is so small, he immediately gets to tag me. So the game goes pretty fast, I tag him, he tags me, until, he is standing there with an upraised arm ready to tag me as soon as I tag him. And he is very fast! Much faster reflexes than I. Now, this is very funny, and we are both laughing hysterically, because neither of us realized that this would be the outcome. Furthermore, we both soon discover that we don't need to tag each other immediately, but can do it more leisurely, since the other person cannot run away very far!

Next, after playing in this way for awhile, the boy suggests that we enlarge the square to four concrete squares. So now we have a playing field that is 6 by 6 feet. Well, this game goes pretty fast too, except that you have to run a few feet before cornering the other person. And then we get into a rapid exchange of hand slaps, and trying to jump out of the way. We are grinning at each other the whole time, carefully observing each other, and trying to figure out how to "win" the game, and still stay within the rules. But I also think what makes this game so enjoyable, is that there is rapid exchange between winner and loser. No one stays a winner or a loser for very long!

We then enlarge the square even further, and try again. Now it is 9 by 9 feet. Again, we play and it goes much like the earlier game, except that you have to run a little more. Now, as I mentioned earlier, we are playing this game on a pool deck, and these concrete squares are adjoining the pool itself. There was also another reason why we decided to play tag in such a small space. If we played only in the pool, then, I being the better swimmer, would easily beat him. He didn't want to play tag in the pool. But now, we agree to incorporate the pool into the tag game. So we run around a 9 by 9 foot square, I tag him, and try to jump into the pool right after tagging him. This is not as easy as it sounds, since he is so fast! Many times, I tag him, he tags me as I am leaping into the pool, which means I am now "it" again, and have to climb back out onto the concrete squares. Then I figure out that I can corner him on the pool edge while I am "it." I wait until I catch my breath, while maintaining him in the corner so he cannot escape. Then as I am leaping into the pool, I make the tag, and get in. Well, he may or may not want to jump in after me. If not, then I will approach and play taunt him, and of course, I will also let him tag me, so we can exchange places.

Now, children love to experiment with the rules. And according to the dictionary, play is the free movement within prescribed limits. In other words, in order to have fun, actually you have to have rules and limits! It is paradoxical, but the more restrictions there are, the more creativity can be applied, and this can lead to more fun. And I think it is very important to adjust the rules so that both parties have an equal chance of winning! Make it a challenge for both of you. Otherwise one of you will be bored.

Incidentally, I always include a timeout rule, because the playing can get rather rowdy. Anyone can call "timeout" for any reason, and the game must stop immediately and we must see if everyone is OK. In the water, two or more taps anywhere on the body, has the same meaning. I test the rule out. When they grab me, I give two taps and get mad if they don't release me immediately. Many children do not understand the concept of "No!" Yet a child's ability to say "I don't feel like it," and have it respected is linked to nonviolence. The nonviolent and friendly Semai of Malaysia have a term for this....the word "bood."

I also play chess with this boy and others (see my playing chess with kids webpage). But a funny thing happened that last time I played chess. The chess pieces were kept in a shallow plastic covered container, about 1"x3"x4" and I was now playing with two skinny 10 year old boys who are cousins. We are playing near the refrigerated water fountain next to the bathrooms. Well, I had gotten up to use the restroom, and when I came out, they surprised me by dumping a container of ice water on me!. "Yelp!" I cried. Well, the game was on! I got up, and they were busy filling the container again with ice water. Again, and again, they threw ice water on a dazed me. Wham! Wham! faster and faster, although with less and less water, since the water does not come out of the fountain that fast. Then they gave the container to me because they wanted me to try doing it to them.

So I fill it up with ice water, and in the meantime, they have run to the other side of the pool deck. No chance of catching either of them. Furthermore, the container, being shallow, cannot be carried too fast, or else the water will spill out. So after walk-running around the pool several times, spilling the water, and having to go back to refill, I get a new idea: I place the filled container on the concrete, and started to walk away. I invite one of the boys to steal it. He approaches, and I turn around and grab the container first, and then dump it on him, since he is approaching too. This was my plan. So, we are grinning at each other, trying to figure out what to do. And this task is not so easy, because if I grab the container first, I also, in the excitement, have to throw the water accurately, to get the boy wet. We do this many, many times.

Well, this game evolves. We had been playing catch earlier with a sponge football. Well, the other boy uses the football to hit the container, thereby spilling the water. Or, he goes to the water fountain, and soaks the sponge football with ice water. Now we are more evenly matched. I try to throw the water on them, one throws the ice cold football on me. Whammo! I get hit right on the rear end, a bulls eye. This is all pretty hysterical. They retrieve the football and rearm it with ice water. I decide to hide behind a deck chair. I push the chair closer, carrying my container of ice water, ducked behind the chair. They build a bunker of deck lounges and hunker down. A few throws, rearming at the fountain. One boy fakes throwing the football, and I duck, but spill my water in the process! All kinds of new behavior emerges. Later, when they have the container, I grab one of the boys and hold him hostage. Now, if the other boy tries to douse me with ice water, he has to get his cousin wet too. I've already thought of some new strategies to try the next time I see them.

I don't know if this webpage will help you play better, but let me know if it does.


Last updated 2 September 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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