Friday, July 11, 2014


There is a privately-owned public basketball court across the street from our apartment where, on summer evenings, young men from all over the city come together to test themselves against one another. The games they play are highly competitive and there are a lot of skillful players out there on that asphalt. But most of the time, that's not the case. Most users of that court are a mix regular folks looking for a little recreation, men and women, boys and girls who feel like shooting some baskets. The other day I watched a teen playing a game in which he was a one-man team vying against a three-man team of younger kids. I've seen games in which more skilled players limited themselves to only shooting long 3-point shots or who played defense with their hands behind their backs. 

It reminds me of the way we used to play pick-up sports when I was a boy, out there on the lawns and pavements of Wembley Street in Columbia, South Carolina, or Athens, Greece. Whether it was basketball, baseball, kickball, football, or soccer, the only way we could assemble enough bodies for a game was by including everyone who wanted to participate, no matter what their age, size, gender, or talent level. No one ever really discussed it, but the bigger, older kids always, naturally, handicapped themselves in some way in order to make the game fair. If it was a foot race, you gave the younger kid a head start. If it was baseball, the 12-year-old pitcher lobbed the ball in to 5-year-old batters rather than trying to strike them out. If it was soccer, the older kids never kicked it as hard as they could and the younger got away with fouling willy-nilly.

Adults did not tell us to do this. It was something we came up with all on our own, and according to Boston Collage research professor of psychology and author Peter Gray, it's something children from all cultures throughout time have done when engaged in free play. This dynamic isn't evident in sports games set up and managed by adults, like Little League, where competitive lust among both parents and children all too often leads to the worst sort of ugliness, but when children play together freely, they always find ways to make the games perhaps unequal, but decidedly fair for everyone.

Why do children do this? Because we all knew that if the older or more skilled kids dominate, hurt, or simply humiliate the younger or less talented, the game would be over. Or as Gray puts it in his book Free to Learn:

Play is not something one has to do; players are always free to quit. In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends. To keep the game going players must satisfy not only their own desires but also those of the other players. The intense drive that children have to play with other children, therefore, is a powerful force for them to learn how to attend to others' wishes and negotiate differences. Research in our culture has shown repeatedly that even preschool children engage in enormous amounts of negotiation and compromise in the context of play. One of the great evolutionary purposes of social play is to help children learn how to treat one another respectfully, as equals, in ways that meet everyone's needs and desires, despite differences in size, strength, and ability.

Those of us who work in play-based schools see this dynamic all the time, even as we often have the tendency to step in too soon, charging in to "manage" conflicts before anyone reaches the stage of "quitting." The longer I've been doing this, however, the more I've worked on staying out of the way until a child asks for help and even then my help tends to come in the form of informational statements.

For instance, those four girls in fancy dresses heatedly arguing over who got to be the Disney princess Ariel lead to two of them starting to walk away, only to be stopped by a formerly recalcitrant girl who offered, "I know, you can be grown-up Ariel and I'll be baby Ariel," a solution that evolved into each of the girls choosing to be their mutually favorite character at a different age. And the game was able to continue.

Last year, I was touched by my friend Audrey who was playing the part of "games master" in a rousing match of Animal Twister (a story I've already told here on the blog in more detail). As the other children scrambled to be the first to "find" the proper animal with their hands and feet, "Phil" was frozen on the edge of the mat, unable to "compete" at the level of his classmates, a fact that reduced him to tears and a threat to "quit." As I comforted him, Audrey quietly went around to each of the other participants and, in whispers, persuaded them to allow Phil to "win" the next round. When she called, "Cow, hand!" the other children stood stock still looking at Phil. When he still struggled to identify the proper shape, Audrey pointed it out with her toe. As she handed him his card, she said, "Alright! You did it!" The game then proceeded with every few turns being a "Phil's turn," with all the children agreeing that this was a fair way to play. And it was.

In our culture, the idea of "quitting" has gotten a bad rap. In fact, being called a "quitter" is one of the worst things you can say to another person. But true free play, the kind of play that children engage in together of their own devices, depends upon that option to quit. It's how we learn our most cherished and important social skills and values. 

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