Friday, January 27, 2012

Mouse Trap

I suppose we all do this, buy toys from our own childhood with which to play with our own children. One of the many I purchased like this was the board game Mouse Trap. I'd always thought, even as a boy, that it was poorly designed as a game, but as a Rube Goldberg Contraption it is magnificent, failing just often enough, even when apparently set up perfectly, to create tension among all the players whenever the crank to set the whole thing in motion is turned. Wild cheering always followed when it did work.

That the trap would fail to operate properly each time, was built into the game, but even more importantly, it forced the players to observe closely, theorize, and continually tinker with it so as to make it operate just right. When I bought it for my daughter, she was too young (the recommended minimum age is 6) to build the apparatus herself, which was fine with me, I liked doing it for her, but in the crush of all the other things we did together, Mouse Trap got pushed to the back of the game closet and really didn't get used much.

Sadly, it has had a similar experience during its life at Woodland Park. I knew it could only possibly be used with the oldest kids in our Pre-K class, and even then it would require fairly intense adult participation, not only to get it built, but also to manage all those little pieces, any one of which getting lost would render the machine inoperable. It had found its way to the back of a shelf and forgotten, but when we moved in June and I un-boxed it at the new location I told myself, "We use it this year or it's gone."

I found my chance last Tuesday when the public school had an early release and a couple 7-year-old siblings were going to join us for the day.

Time was somewhat limited and I didn't want them monkeying around with playing the game, so I "sold" it as a puzzle. When I pulled it out in front of the assembled group there was a general cry of, "Mouse Trap!" which I might have expected had I thought of it given that most of the kids this year have older siblings. 

Sena's sister Ava elected to do other things, so that left Sylvia's brother Zachary to be our resident kid expert on Mouse Trap. And, oh was he a saint about it!

When the box was opened, little hands immediately started grabbing the many small plastic parts, examining them, talking about them, trying to make sense of what they were looking at. "It's stairs!" "Here's a bucket!" "I have a blue mouse!" "A stop sign!" Zachary, however, was all business. I heard him inform the group, which was at that time not apparently paying attention, that they had to start with the board which he unfolded on the rug.

I wasn't there for the whole process, but each time I swung by a few more pieces were in place. I heard Zachary's voice all the while coaxing and commanding. Addison's mom Jen was the parent-teacher overseeing the activity. She seemed to spend most of the time either laughing or amplifying Zachary's words -- "Does anyone have the boot?" "We're looking for the long pole with the hand on the end." "Is anyone sitting on it?"

Frankly, it was a sort of chaotic scrum, with Zachary remaining impressively calm in the midst of it, trying his best to lead this project through to completion. No one asked him to take on that role, but he did, I suppose, by virtue of his personality and slightly advanced age. The children didn't seem to be paying attention to him as they chattered and tinkered on their own, but the trap was getting built, one precarious piece at a time. Many of the parts had to be re-built over and over as one child then another would bump it or simply move it to where she thought it might better belong. It was the kind of situation that had I been leading might have turned into an adult-directed "Let's take turns" kind of thing.

But from my vantage point standing above it all, I watched a process not work through the step-by-step approach I would have favored (and I suppose Zachary would have preferred as well), but rather through a kind of ebb and flow. At one point he did raise his voice, but I could hardly blame him.

Several times they got to the point that the contraption seemed ready to activate, all those little pieces balanced in place, only to have one child or other reach across the board knocking a piece askew or accidentally activating one part of the machine before its time. Some of the kids were playing games with the small mouse shaped tokens, dancing them around the trap end of the machine, pretending to eat cheese. This was clearly fun, but didn't help. 

We were starting to run out of time. At one of the points when the machine appeared ready to go, I intervened, commanding, "Okay, everyone back up! Don't touch anything!" Zachary sat with his fingers on the crank. I whispered urgently, "Now, Zachary, turn the crank," but he didn't. Instead, all his hard work as leader before him, a precarious puzzle at the mercy of any one of his team of lurch-y preschoolers, he paused and said to the children playing with the mouse shaped tokens, "If you want your mice to be trapped you have to put them there." Naturally, as he waited for that to happen, the post holding the cage got bumped and it rattled down. In the excitement of trying to get it back in place, several of the other pieces got jostled, bumped, and otherwise required resetting.

Finally, we thought we had it once more. This time Zachary didn't hesitate. We watched the boot kick the stop sign, causing the little ball to roll down the stairway and into the winding gutter. It got stuck at the bottom, so Zachary, with his finger, nudged the hand that caused the second ball to drop into the sky-high bathtub, it plummeting through the hole in the bottom, landing on the diving board, but failed to launch the man into the round basin. Zachary again jostled the thing, causing the trap to descend and finally capture the mice.

Everyone cheered, except for Zachary, who wore an expression that looked proud, but not completely satisfied. And he should have felt proud. I doubt there is an adult in the world who could have managed this project so well while allowing the children so much freedom for their own expression. Everyone felt involved and engaged. Everyone felt part of the success.

And that was it. It was time to put it all away.

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Jen said...

It was chaotic...but it was beautiful! I loved seeing Zachary take charge of the actual building of the mouse trap as it was meant to be but I also LOVED seeing how the other kids took it in an entirely different direction. The preschool kids were taking the mice and placing them in various places on the mousetrap to see what would happen when a ball or spring was released. Some were pushed down a slide, some were whirled around in the gears and flying off, some were just busy collecting and eating cheese! Every time another part got set up the kids went nuts finding alternative ways to use that new part and explore what it could do. Two opposing forces..yet it was finally completed. I give Zachary big props for sticking with it . He was amazing!

Meagan said...

I LOVED Mousetrap. And you're right it was a terrible game, in fact, spot on in your description of the fail rate adding to the fun, though I never thought about that aspect. It's like gambling!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Zachery was amazingly forbearing through this!
I enjoyed reading about this immensely - as child I played this with my brothers, and then my son also played this game - what chaotic happiness!
I'm glad you chose to give it one more try!