We play games, and experience conflict

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

During the first 15 minutes of the worship service, Amy, our parish minister, told a really good story about a rabbi who dreams about treasure (Amy sometimes reads this blog, and I let her post a summary of the story in the comments if she feels like it). Then we sang “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a lovely hymn that we want the children to know. Those of us going to Sunday school went out during the fourth verse of the hymn.

Melissa was going to be the lead teacher this week, but she had sent email to Susie and me, asking if one of us could take over for her. Susie had replied that she’d come up with something, but when we got to our classroom, Susie said she had been ill. She was ready and willing to lead the class in — something — unless I had something I’d like to do….

Now one of the things I’ve learned teaching Sunday school is that it’s good to always have activities in mind that you can use. Sometimes planned lessons turn into disasters, sometimes I have had to fill in at the last minute, sometimes I have planned a lesson only to find that one of my co-teachers did pretty much the same thing last week when I was off — so now I always have some activities ready that aren’t related to the formal curriculum, but which will help us work on our big educational goals. this week, I had been thinking about some theater games, and I also had a story that I wanted to tell the class….

There were three children this week — Dorit, Andrew, and Oliver — and four of us adults — Susie, Lee, Lucy, and me. We started off with our regular chalice lighting and check in. When we had all checked in, I asked the children if they wanted to hear a story, or play games. “Play games!” they said. Andrew said, “I have a game! It’s like Zip, Zap, Zoop, only it’s called Boom!” Andrew explained his game to us. Someone would point to someone across the circle from them; that person would have to duck immediately, upon which the people on either side of the person who ducked would point at each other and say, “Zap!” Whoever said “Zap!” last would be out; or if the person who was supposed to duck didn’t duck in time, they would be out. I said that we probably couldn’t have people go out of the game, since there were only seven of us and games would end very quickly. Instead, I suggested that instead of going out, each time you forgot to duck or someone beat you to saying “Zap!”, you’d get one letter in the sequence B-O-O-M; the first person to spell BOOM (that is, get out four times, and get all four letters) would lose the game. Andrew said he thought that would work well.

We started playing. Lee deicded to sit out, saying “This game is too fast for me!” (It’s often a good idea to have one of the adult leaders sit out of difficult games, as this gives kids who are more tentative permission to sit out as well.) Pretty soon everyone had a letter except me, and Andrew and Oliver were saying, “We gotta get Dan! We gotta get Dan!” But then Oliver got all four letters, and the game was over. Whew! it was a fast-moving game.

I said I’d like to do a theater game next, a game called Tug of War. I had gotten this game from Viola Spolin’s book Theater Games for the Classroom: A teacher’s Handbook (Evanton, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1986), p. 47. You create an imaginary rope out of “space-stuff,” and then with the help of an adult side coach, two children have an imaginary tug of war. I like theater games because to play them well, the children have to learn how to become aware of each other’s movements, and they have to figure out how to cooperate.

The children were a little uncertain about this game. I had to help them pretend that there was a rope, a big thick heavy rope, that they would both pull on. I had to explain that if one person pulled, the other person would have to move towards them — eventually, I had to tell them which child would win, after that child would first be pulled almost over the imaginary center line.

Andrew and Oliver were ready to try. Andrew had difficulty imagining the center line, so I put a piece of clothesline down to show where the center line really was. Then he reached down to pick up the clothesline; he wanted to use that to tug on. No, I explained, we would use imaginary rope. Andrew seemed to think that imaginary rope wasn’t much good, but he guessed he’d try it. Oliver said that when kids at his school do a tug of war, some of them get down lie down to tug, and he showed us. Great idea, I said to him, why don’t you try that? At last Andrew and Oliver were ready to try this theatre game. But Andrew didn’t want to even pretend to let Oliver win for a few minutes; Andrew really wanted to win this game so he just pulled on his imaginary rope, and kept walking towards the wall. Oliver lay down and pulled on the imaginary rope, and even tied it to a chair, but Andrew was inexorable. Andrew declared himself the winner. Dorit tried, and one of the children wanted to do a tug of war with me, and then we were done with that game.

“Let’s play Red Light Green Light,” I said. I love playing Red Light Green Light with kids, and with some Sunday school classes, Red Light Green Light has become a favorite activity. The way I play Red Light Green Light, you’re allowed to move even when the person who’s It says “Red light!” — although if you get caught moving, you still have to go back. However you play Red Light Green Light, it’s a game that gives a lot of power to the person who is It, and one of the interesting things about the game is seeing how children handle that power.

I was It first. Andrew was very competitive, and he didn’t like that sometimes I would see him, and ignore his sister. “You’re letting her win!” he complained. And indeed, one of the challenges of being It in Red Light Green Light is being fair — sending everyone back in an even-handed manner. I made sure to send Dorit back, when I could catch her moving.

Andrew won the first game, and then he was It. But he was so quick in turning around — “Green light! Red light!” — that it was hard for the rest of us to move forward. And he was so quick to see us move (sometimes when one of us hadn’t really moved) that we didn’t get very far from the starting line. I coached him about how he needed to turn around for longer periods of time after saying “Green light!”, and how he needed to be more forgiving. He got better, but he was still so good at catching us moving that he wouldn’t let any of us get more than halfway to the goal. Somehow, he failed to understand that he had to find a balance between following the rules exactly, and making the game fun by sometimes ignoring people when they moved. He also desperately wanted to win, to keep on being It for as long as he could. At last, I told Oliver to not move; I picked Oliver up and place him on the goal. Andrew stared at me open-mouthed. “I win!” said Oliver. “You cheated!” said Andrew, aghast that I would cheat. “Let’s sit down and talk this over,” I said, leading the way back to the circle of chairs.

We sat down, and I talked a bit about what made that game fun, and what didn’t make that game fun. The children had their own ideas of how to make the game fun. Andrew was not pleased at how things were going, but at last he decided that he would play again. We played again, and Oliver was It. It was more fun for most of us this time around, but Andrew got mad every time Oliver sent him back to the starting line. Finally, that game was over, and we had to go back to the circle of chairs to talk this over one more time. We decided we were probably done playing the game, since class time was almost over anyway. “But I never got to be It!” Dorit wailed. Andrew got up and started walking towards the door; I asked him to sit back down again, and he did, reluctantly.

We all blew out the chalice together — or rather, I counted to three, and Andrew made sure he was the one who blew out the chalice before the rest of us could. We said good-bye, and the children went off to get hot chocolate at social hour.

I chatted briefly with Andrew’s mom at the end of class. She said this was a good thing for him to experience. “We’ll be back next week,” she said.

So ended a challenging class. We made quite a bit of progress towards our goal of having fun and building community — well, maybe all of us didn’t have as much fun as I would have liked, but we learned that being a part of a community means that sometimes you get into conflicts, and some of us saw what happens when one’s personal goals and preferences don’t coincide with the group’s goals and preferences.

Next entry.

2 thoughts on “We play games, and experience conflict

  1. Amy

    Reb Isaac story:

    For those deprived of the opportunity to hear me and Kris tell the story, the best source is Martin Buber in his Tales of the Hasidim.

    Red Light/Green Light:

    I love the way you dealt with this. (Yeah, even the cheating!) It brought into the open the tension between maximizing one’s chances of winning and maximizing the fun for everyone. Red Light/Green Light is not a fun game for those intent on winning; whoever is It really can’t win except by subverting the point of the game by not letting anyone advance. (As a competitive person who dislikes both losing and winning, I get a stomachache just thinking of this game.) I can really get from your description how much Andrew was struggling with this, and how this class might have helped him perceive some new ways to resolve the problem. It’s an important life skill.

    And I’m amused by how he regained his competitive edge at the chalice extinguishing. Keeping face?

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