Clippings: The games we play, lessons we learn

As I languidly flipped through a children’s toy catalog one morning an item caught my eye. It’s the kind of educational toy catalog that we probably get because we are members of the natural foods co-op. There were virtually none of the toys or games from my childhood — no lawn darts, no Jimmy the Greek Odds Maker Poker.

But then I spied Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, the game in which two kids operate plastic robots that square off in a boxing ring and try to knock each other’s block off. It seemed out of step with the other educational games in the catalog. It was mostly about violence and aggression. You can’t end the game in a draw; blood (or hydraulic fluid, at least) must be shed.

How did thisgame get in thiscatalog? The description said playing Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots would help children learn better eye-hand coordination. Oh, I get it. Deep down, if you just look hard enough, every game has some intrinsic lessons for the youngsters who play them. With this lesson about lessons in mind, I looked back to the games I played as a child to see if I could figure out how I became the adult I am today.

My brothers and sisters and I used to play a lot of Monopoly. While some kids learned the lesson buy low-sell high, I’m afraid I only learned to buy the cheapest properties but pay the biggest rents. I also recall hours on rainy days spent playing Yahtzee. Can’t recall much about strategy or scoring, just remember it has five dice that you shake in a special cup with fakey fake leather sides. The only lesson I took away from Yahtzee, and one I still practice today, is roll the dice and hope for the best. A favorite card game was Crazy Eights. The only lesson I learned is that “crazy” is good.

When the rain stopped and we moved out to the school yard and playgrounds there were a range of ball games we played that taught us a world of lessons.

In kickball, kids divided into teams and basically played baseball without bats. This game developed the all-important eye-foot coordination while teaching us to aim for the open spaces between players and run like hell. In dodgeball, a very important ritual in my fifth and sixth grade, we whizzed balls at our classmates knocking them out like ducks in a shooting gallery. This game wasn’t necessarily won by the biggest or even the strongest, and it instructed us in agility, the wonderful powers of the head fake and the need to run like hell.

And finally, a dandy game we inherited from our older brothers was kill the man with the ball. The game is so simple that its only rule is also its name. Like all ball games, it taught us a crucial life lesson: If you have the ball, run like hell.

Seeing all the things I learned as a child, I wondered if my own kids are learning anything in their spare time. They both like to dance, but I’m not talking about artistic expression and a sense of self confidence. I wondered if they’re learning any real life lessons — like how to run like hell.

Our nine-year-old told me that she likes to play pinball, which surprised me because we don’t visit a lot of diners or game arcades that would have the kinds of pinball machines I loved as a youth. But she explained she is talking about a game they play at school where kids work as teams to knock down the bowling pins of the opposing team while guarding their own pins. OK, sounds like there’s lots of running in that.

The seven-year-old is good at card games and really likes the board game “Sorry.” When I asked her what games she liked to play, the one she came up with was something we call “Monster and Bobcat.” In this game, she plays a bobcat that rears up on its hind legs and tries to scratch out my eyes, and I play the monster that fights back with a lot of flailing and roaring. It can get pretty intense.

I think her absolute favorite game, though, is called “Spider”; the nine-year-old likes it too. It started when they were babies, and I would walk my hand in the shape of a spider up their naked bellies onto their chests where I would slip my fingers down to their armpits and tickle as they laughed themselves silly.

They still howl with laughter. And I try to teach them the innate lessons of the game: Give spiders the respect they deserve, be prepared for the unexpected, laughter is the best medicine.

I suppose my girls take away the most important lesson of Spider without even realizing it, and it’s not improved eye-hand coordination, how to duck a left hook from a robot or how to run like hell when they see me coming. As they wipe the happy tears from their faces I think they’ve learned just how their daddy feels about them. 


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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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