Red Light, Green Light

Since we had a lay-led service today, I got to teach Sunday school with Serena, our regular paid child care provider. There were three children present: S—-, age 7; E—-, age 7; and A—-, age 10. K—-, age 12, who was visiting with A—-, was also present.

Rather than plan out a complete lesson, I decided to go with the spontaneous programming approach to planning, where the program arises out of the interests of the children, and their interactions with their surrounding environment. I brought along a Christmas story (which I never used), some drawing paper and crayons, and a game.

The game was “Red Light, Green Light (with cheating),” which the children have been playing off and on all fall. In order to understand the session, I have to explain the rules of “Red Light, Green Light (with cheating)”:

One person is “It.” She stands some distance away from the starting line, where the rest of the players stand (thirty to a hundred feet is a good distance; use a greater distance with more players). She stands in front of the goal, which is some solid object — a chair, a tree, a couch.

To begin the game, “It” stands in front of the goal, says “Green light!” in a loud voice, and turns her entire body away from the rest of the players. As soon as “It” turns away from the rest of the players, they all advance as quickly as possible towards the goal. After a moment or two, “It” says “Red light!” in a loud voice while simultaneously turning around to face the players. If she catches any player still moving, she calls out that player’s name, says what body part she saw moving, and sends him back to the starting line.

In traditional “Red Light, Green Light,” players are supposed to stand absolutely still after “It” says “Red light!” But this version of the game allows cheating, where players can move at any time — although of course if “It” catches them moving, she can send them back to the starting line. In addition, “It” can cheat by walking away from the goal to get a better look at the players, to see if certain individuals are moving.

The game works best if you play it together over a period of time, so you can figure out the nuances of the rules. Children will find that they can sneak up behind adults. As you play together, you will get increasingly strict about what constitutes movement (at advanced levels of play, even a smile will send you back to the starting line). You will discover the two basic strategies: slow and steady, and mad dashes towards the goal; both strategies can work (and they work well in combination). Those who become “It” discover that it requires coordination to whirl around quickly, and concentration to watch all the players.

The game ends when one player touches the goal without being called out by “It.” That player then becomes the next “It” for the next game.

“Red Light, Green Light (with cheating)” is a great game for small Sunday schools because it works well with mixed age groups (from six to adult). Younger children will need more than one session of the game to feel fully comfortable with it. When you’re first starting out, older children and adults will have to learn to modify their play to accommodate younger children who are learning (younger children who join an established game will find it easier to pick up the nuances of the game). We’ve been playing the game long enough that the younger children are nearly competitive with older children and adults.

The children are always excited when I go over the rules for the game. They find it hard to believe that the rules explicitly allow cheating. They also learn pretty quickly that the cheating is very limited, and actually makes the game harder to play, not easier to win.

A—- became “It” in the third game. She whirled around, saying “Green light!” Then she whirled back and looked at us. “I didn’t say ‘Red light!’ yet, you know,” she said. No one moved. “Red light!” she said. No one moved. She tried this several more times, but as long as she was looking at us, no one moved.

The children began to learn if they hid behind the two adults, Serena and me, “It” would be less likely to see them moving. K—- figured out that if she kept herself very low to the ground, “It” was less likely to call her out; she won the next game using this strategy.

When you are “It” in this version of the game, you have almost absolute power over the other players, within the constraints of the game. When S—- became “It” a second time today, she began abusing her power. She sent several of us back to the start even though we hadn’t moved at all. We complained, but she didn’t listen to us. So we had to resort to other strategies: we conspired to rush her all at once (A—- almost won when we did that); and we complained at her unfairness. After that game was over, K—- said she no longer wanted to play. You could almost see the wheels turning in S—-‘s head, as she realized that she had gone a little too far. At the end of this game, I said, “The next time is the last game, then we’ll do something else.” But S—- said, “No, we have to keep on playing!” — and then she realized that no one else was as eager to play the game as she was any more.

A—- was “It” for the last game. All the players had gotten quite good by this point. We all spread out over the room so that when we got close to her, A—- couldn’t keep an eye on all of us at once. K—- sat at the side of the room, pretending not to watch us. E—- won, sneaking quite close and then making a mad dash to tag the goal right after A—- said “Red light!”

I got out the paper and crayons and said, “Now let’s draw whatever you want most for Christmas.” All the children (and adults) settled down to draw, except S—-, who after five minutes said, “I’m bored with drawing.” S—- is a verbal and kinesthetic learner, so I explained to her that she is the kind of person who likes moving around a lot, but the rest of the children enjoy drawing. S—- looked around and saw that the other children did indeed love to draw, so she settled down — which represents a big step for S—-, who has loved being the center of attention and has always gotten the group to do what she wants. She asked me why I was drawing money, and I told her because that’s what I want for Christmas (Serena was drawing money too!). When I drew Cookie Monster where George Washington usually goes on a dollar bill, S—- said she wanted to know how to draw Cookie. I showed her one way draw Cookie, and she spent the rest of the time drawing.

If S—- had been a couple of years older, perhaps I would have sat down with the children after playing “Red Light, Green Light (with cheating)” and asked them about what had happened during the game, eventually leading up to pen-ended questions like, “How did you feel when someone sent you back even though you hadn’t moved?” and “How did it feel to be able to cheat during the game?” (although plenty of learning happened anyway without the necessity of being so explicit). One of the nice things about teaching Sunday school is that the same children often come back for years, so you can watch them grow up, and get to important discussions when they’re at last old enough for it.