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The silly little game that opened my eyes to the serious power of play

The silly little game that opened my eyes to the serious power of play

Play can help us cope with change in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

Kids played. Adults worked. Life was serious. My future lay ahead of me. But then I decided to put play to work.

My friend and I played a game in the car today. It was a first for us.

She obliterates me at word games — Scrabble, Wordle, Bananagrams — but this was something different.

It was a version of the category game, where you each name something in a category, like a type of hat, or a type of fruit.

Back and forth, until one person makes a repeat or can’t name a new one. Except this version is more open-ended, with no winners and losers. 

Okay, she said

What would you find in a clown’s trunk? 

A red nose, she said

How about a tiny bicycle?

And a little red bell for the bicycle

Plus one of those horn parp-parp thingamabobs. 

Together the two of us conjured up one of the most well-equipped clowns in the history of clowning.

By letting go of the fear of losing or looking silly, we managed to build something together, and laughed as our picture of this clown came to life. 

A pair of massively long black shoes.

With a pair of yellow socks rolled up inside them.

My younger son and I often play this game. With children, there’s a readiness to play, perhaps because there’s less on the line.

Games are for discovery and experimentation. They teach us to navigate relationships, communicate, and test the boundaries.

For grown-ups, games are a relief from the incessant and complicated responsibilities of adulthood.

A tiny elephant in a tutu, standing on two legs on top of a stripy pedestal

For small kids, it seems as if mistakes don’t matter. They’re not even recognised as such, but rather as opportunities to veer off into some new opportunity.

In our fantasy play, when my daughter was little, I noticed how she could declare that the mud pie she’d made was poison, or that the poison was a magical juice that would turn you into a dragon, or that the dragon liked dancing but was invisible.

A twirling bowtie that is actually a fat spider!

My older son would change the rules of the game as we went along. Back then, I found it frustrating. I saw it as evidence that he couldn’t accept the way things worked.

But I was mired in an adult’s perspective, inflexible and dogmatic. He was using the game as a canvas to negotiate, an opportunity to experiment.

If I let go, we might decide if the change was an improvement, or not. The silliest skills could be tested.

What does that cloud remind you of? Does the cooked spaghetti stick to the window? What shape does it make?

He used games to help him know himself, and in our games, I got to know him and love him.   

A very small shiny hat

With a white mouse underneath it! 

It was before I had my own kids, during my brief, joyous, and unexpected career as a special needs educator, when I rediscovered the powerful function of play.

As a young adult in my first job, I realised that play had been consigned to irrelevancy as I moved through my postgraduate education.

Kids played. Adults worked. Work and play were separate things. Life was serious. My future lay ahead of me. Time to sharpen up. But then I decided to put play to work. 

A silk shirt with red polka dots!

I saw that my charges struggled with the institution that was school, as did I.

The songs and games they’d brought with them to school were consigned to the playground.

Break time was where laughter and rhyming games and all sorts of craziness lived. Lessons were stale prose, while break was carefree poetry.

A tiny yellow car with a hole in the roof! 

The kids were frequently in trouble and received detentions from other teachers.

We learnt to skip assembly, where their names were read out and they were forced to stand in front of everyone else.

We got as far away from school as possible in the spluttering school minivan, to remote beaches and mountains.

We spent the day looking into rock pools and helping fishermen pull in their nets.  

Most of my kids struggled with the written word. It was little wonder they’d been squeezed out of the mainstream.

So we played. Anything can be counted and subtracted and divided. Signage along roads is conveniently short and instructive.

Nothing animates a child like a zap of competition. Who would win? Who would get to the blackboard first and write it down? 

I found that poetry was the way back to prose, with its predictable rhymes and musicality, its brevity and poignant surprise.

Kids can create poetry and never be wrong. With prose, it’s more of a quagmire. Plenty can go wrong. 

After I stopped teaching, when I realised I was still in school and needed to get out, games stayed with me.

I became a parent. That’s when the fun and games really started. 

A flower in a pot that’s really a water pistol! 

As we drove along, my friend and I exchanging clownish ideas, I realised that I carried so much joy within me from all my times as a parent and a teacher.

No matter what, I would always be able to turn the most bleak and serious thing into a game.

I’d always be able to see things through the eyes of a child. I could be free of the demands of adulthood, if only temporarily. I could make my world. 

Now, it’s your turn. Would you like to play again? Or do you know another game? 

Sean O'Connor

Change expert, Sean O'Connor, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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