“It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game”

Something of a paradigm shift is occurring: play is no longer what children do when there is nothing better organised for them at home or school! People, especially professionals, are beginning to see the virtues and benefits of play. One obvious example is the realisation that the decline of outdoor play is one of a web of factors that contributes to the problem of obesity in the lives of so many children. Another is the growing awareness that children need to be able to take risks and make their own assessments in the natural environment: it will not do to make everything so safe that they lose the precious and vital ability to explore and where necessary learn from their mistakes and mishaps.

Over the years in this column I have often written on the subject of play, and one of the main chapters of my book, The Growth of Love, focuses on children’s creativity and inherent playfulness. If you have read any of this material you will know that my own considered view is that play, in addition to being great fun for its own sake, is also one of the most sophisticated and effective forms of learning, whether about others, oneself, relationships, power, teamwork, the natural world, and how things work (including much of what is known in educational terms as physics, chemistry, geography, maths, language and so on).


But in this column I would like to make one or two observations about a particular form of play: what we call “games”. By this I mean formal games, indoor and outdoor, with a written set of rules, as distinct from more spontaneous and improvised forms of play that children tend to engage in by themselves and when together with other children in virtually any situation or context.

Two obvious forms of games are what we call sport (usually thought of as an outdoor activity) and table or board games (usually associated with indoors). There are of course many variations on the theme, but I think that all readers will be able to get the hang of what I mean. Just as I have come to believe that human beings need to have a concept of ‘story’ if they are to understand and take responsibility for their own lives (and then the lives of some significant others), so I realise that without the knowledge of, and ability to engage in, some form of games, children are at risk of being psychologically, socially, and physically deprived.

This has little or nothing to do with wealth and culture as I have had the opportunity to witness games, indoors and outdoors all over the world. In fact, whereas formal education in the sense of western type facilities and curricula will never be universal in world terms, games are already universal. One wonders what the relative benefit might have been if some of the effort ploughed into formal “Education, education, education”, had been channelled into games. But that is not the point of this piece. Rather, I want to share a growing sense of discovery about two aspects of all games that may have been largely overlooked. They are departure and arrival.

Starting and winning

Perhaps the more common terms if you look at the rule books, would be ‘starting’ and ‘winning’. But I hope the reason for my choice of words will quickly become apparent. It doesn’t take much effort to see that all games take for granted (among a number of other elements) the fact that they start, and then after an agreed time or set of moves or processes, they finish. In team games there is often a whistle or hooter for the ‘kick-off’, and a final whistle (or hoot), when the allotted time has run out. In board games there is the first throw of the die (or opening move), and then the end, which usually means that one (or more) of the players has won the game by completing the objectives set at the outset.

Now much attention is paid to the content of, and techniques best suited to, playing the game between the start and the finish: so much so that you could be forgiven for saying that the game is what happens between the first and final whistle. And this is my point: without detracting from all that happens while the game is going on, I want to explore the significance of the beginning and the end: or, as I prefer to put it, the departure and the arrival. If you are thinking of Snakes and Ladders, then we are talking about the first throw of the die, and the moment when one of the players reaches the final square safely (and exactly), often numbered 100.

Departure and arrival

I came to pause to think about this when my grandchildren arrived back from holiday this summer. They are young, pre-school children, and I suddenly realised that going away and coming back home were of huge significance to them in the whole process. In fact you could say that whereas their parents tended to focus on what happened while away on holiday, the children were disproportionately excited about setting off, finding the field and putting up the tent (or more accurately playing while the tent was being put up!), and the sheer joy of coming back home to all the half-forgotten nooks, crannies and toys inside the house and in the garden.

And the question I have in mind concerns whose views are ‘in proportion’: the parents’ or the children’s? We don’t have to form a judgement, but let us for a moment focus on why the children react in this way. Arriving in a new place is one of the defining experiences of what it is to be human; and likewise arriving back at the place where you started (‘home’ is interestingly enough often the word used in board games like Ludo, for the point of arrival) is essential to human and social life. We can put things the other way around to see their importance: if a child never had positive experiences associated with discovering a new place, or if there was never a welcome return to the familiar homeland or home, then the child’s identity, security and belonging are likely to be in jeopardy.

It is not difficult to see how this line of thinking links with the work of John Bowlby on attachment theory: departure and return and the way they are handled and experienced are crucial in human development. And there is no individual growth or developing relationships possible without them.

Peoples as well as individuals

And what is true of the individual journey of life is also true of whole communities and peoples. There are throughout history times of arrival in new places (sometimes pleasant and longed for, sometimes forced upon them), and times of return. One of the most familiar stories of a people for many is that of the Jewish nation: there is the journey into the ‘Promised Land’, and then a period of exile, followed after seventy years by a return to Jerusalem. The story of exile and return is a familiar motif throughout the world: all peoples and cultures have such stories if you go far enough back. And they are part of the story of most families.

And this pattern, of beginning and ending, departure and return, mirrors the story of human life itself: there is the arrival that we call birth, and the departure that we call death. However much we, whether individually or collectively, focus on the time spent between them (thinking of what we should eat, drink, wear, where we should live, how we should earn our living, whom we should marry, what hobbies and interests we follow and so on) the fact is that every idea, activity and relationship is set between birth and death.

I am not suggesting that little children are conscious of this when they play games, of course, but I am pointing out the symmetry between all games, and the nature of life itself. I think this sort of correspondence is important in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (as far as I understand it), and it’s probably the sort of thing that most of us are prepared to take for granted (or even to ignore). (It’s all to do with mirrors within mirrors, plays within plays, metaphors, patterning, and the mystery that the language we use to say things often reflects the thing we are trying to say.)

What I am beginning to see is that we ignore arrivals and departures at our peril. Birth and death are the fixed points around which human beings and human societies revolve, both physically and metaphorically. I wish there were more time and space to explore how games represent a rich array of perspectives on this. The best I can do is to draw your attention to the point and to suggest that you start observing and participating in games with this in mind.

Meanwhile I can’t get out of mind the comments of parents of the two small children who said that they were more excited on their return home than they were on holiday (a bit like children who are at the stage when they prefer wrapping paper to the presents inside it?). Perhaps the journey involved in playing a game makes the players appreciate home all the more: not just the ‘home’ on the board or the field, but their real home and homeland.

And for those who have no home or homeland? A brief survey of the contemporary world scene reveals they exist in their millions. Games may provide a means of temporary escape, I suppose, but also help in the construction of new possibilities. Can games provide images of future homelands, or even possible strategies for achieving them?

Testing the argument in Wales

At this unfinished and untidy point I must leave you. The reason is that the Mill Grove family is poised to head for its annual holiday in North Wales. Among the games we will be playing I suspect will be Brag, Risk, Chess, Fast Cards, Draughts, Connect Four, Sorry! (inside) and Cricket, Boules, Football (outside). The top two are Brag (it has a variety of alternative, including some rather unsavoury, names) and Cricket; the former is played purely for…I want to say “fun”, but it is rather more complicated than that in that it creates feelings of euphoria and frustration in unequal measures; and the latter is played for a silver cup called The Grains. Brag usually finishes with biscuits dunked in a cup of hot chocolate, and the cricket ends with everyone at risk of being dunked in the sea. Believe me, I hadn’t thought of that correspondence: it just happened!

By the way we don’t have a television there and electronic games are mostly left behind…now that’s another subject. And yes, we have already talked a lot about departure, and the planned arrival home!

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