Tuesday, October 29, 2019


There are a couple dozen ropes on the Woodland Park playground, most of which are tied to something at any given moment, but occasionally there is a free length lying about. During the short period during which it remains untethered to a tree trunk or bucket handle children will pick it up and run around with it. Usually it starts with a single child dragging it behind themself, but invariably a second child, then a third, will get the idea of grabbing the rope as well, running along behind the first child in a game of follow-the-leader. This is a form of play that predictably emerges, year-after-year, a cooperative endeavor that can sometimes grow to include a dozen or more kids.

If someone doesn't then get the urge to tie one end of the rope to something (the most typical way for all rope-based games to end) there will instead be a moment when a child with a contrarian bent decides to pull on the rope against the flow. This instantly transforms the cooperative game into a contest of tug-of-war.

Yesterday, I watched one such tug-of-war. It started with one boy pulling back against the other, a classic contest of strength. Other children began to join in. One after another, they distributed themselves along the rope, pulling in one direction or another. There was little discussion as they did this, yet they managed to keep the "teams" balanced, with neither side overwhelming the other. Before long there were six children tugging on the rope, three on each side. There was some chatter about "winning," but they had in fact reached a point of happy equilibrium. Children called out to their classmates to join in, to help, which they did. Suddenly, one side had a numerical superiority and their combined strength began to prevail, but before they were able to claim victory, two children spontaneously switched sides, reconstituting the balance. It struck me that contrary to the view of tug-of-war as a competitive contest, the children's collective objective was to keep the rope taut, not to win or lose, but rather to not let the game end by creating balance. In other words, despite the optics, it was still a game of cooperation, with children switching sides every time things threatened to become unbalanced.

This is not the first time I've seen this happen. In fact, most of the time this is how tug-of-war goes in preschool when the adults stay out of it with their ideas of competition. As Peter Gray points out in his book Free to Learn, one of the strongest drives that children have while playing with one another appears to be the desire to "keep the game going," and this is clearly what is at work here in these playground games of tug-of-war.

The game went on for quite some time, but then, as is inevitable, one child suggested that they tie one end of the rope to a pole. And this is how the game ended.

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