Some memories from childhood stand out as set pieces, tapestries rich with details, any one of which immediately recalls the original in all its textures. The aroma of freshly picked mint always returns me to my grandmother’s house, where we spent our summers when I was very young. The scent is interwoven with memories of soft, pink roses and meatloaf, the drone of the lawn mower and the feel of newly cut grass on bare feet. Now my children have reached the stretches of their childhood journey that allow them a backwards look, the roads they are traveling will remain within their recall. Each child’s feeling life marries with the world as they perceive it by their senses so that memories, that which will always be true for them despite any other history, are created.
Many of my strongest, and favorite memories are of family gatherings around various tables. My phlegmatic self remembers the meals of course, but we also came together to play games like Snakes and Ladders or Tiddlywinks. I remember the smell of the deck of cards, the worn feel of the pack as I tried to shuffle them in my too small hands. Every Christmas, a new game tumbled down the chimney; Mastermind and Clue, tournaments began that lasted for days. My brothers and I also played pencil and paper games, like Hangman and Tic-tac-toe. But the best times, those most fondly remembered, were when we had grown ups playing with us. The game ‘counted’ then, the interminable game of Monopoly meant something more because our mother was playing.
My children are equally keen to play games as a family. Monkey Boy’s current favorite is Parcheesi but, as he has lost only once in the past six months, it’s hard for the rest of us to drum up much enthusiasm. The Waldorf philosophy holds that the child does not have the social maturity needed for competitive games or sports until around 5th grade. For younger children who are still discovering themselves, their attention should be on developing a wide variety of skills and working cooperatively rather than being focused on achieving the winning score or receiving other external judgements of their individual worth. Many of the games we play at home do have a competitive element but we down play it. We focus instead, on the fun of playing – exclaiming over good luck and bad, rehashing both the clever and the foolish moves. Gloating and other forms of poor sportsmanship are not allowed, and this approach works well for us.
There is one whole category of games we won’t play, video games. For all the flashy graphics, they seem a poor relation to their cardboard cousins. They have the disadvantage of all screens, requiring you to be sedentary, eyes fixed on the screen with only fingers and thumbs moving. The Wii-type games are more active but they lack the myriad, subtle experiences that build actual motor skills. The brain of a child preparing to swing at a ball on the field is processing information from many senses; gauging the speed of the ball and the optimum force with which to meet it, the strength of the breeze, estimating the distance to be run and the time it will take, assessing the traction underfoot. Also the social information; reading the intents of other players, calculating their abilities, and more. But the biggest reason video games fail to capture my imagination, is that they lack opportunities for creative thinking. They encourage problem solving capacities but the rules are pre-programmed, you can’t invent a variation or decide a handicap system that allows players of different skill levels to play together. The pieces of the game can’t be rearranged into something new and unique. And honor, a quality seemingly in decline in our modern world, has no place. Benefit of the doubt can not be freely given any more than it is possible to cheat. The dice don’t roll onto the floor giving you pause under the table, to wonder if they might be claimed as the double 6 you need. There is no trying to parse a near miss into a hit by declaring that you were mis-heard and you actually said B3 not D3 so, really, you did sink that battleship. The chip is in charge and its ruling is there on the screen for all to see, no poker face required. The opportunity for the child to interact and construct, to learn what is essentially valuable about rules, fairness and honesty is lost.
There is much to be learned at the games table; good manners and taking turns, patterns in numbers, shapes and words. All useful things to remember. But it’s the face time, the rambling conversation and in-jokes, the sense of familial connection that are truly beyond price. I remember the feeling of playing my own hand, of being happy. I don’t remember if I won, but I certainly feel as if I did.
Today, we have a new game, we are playing Set. I would love to hear what you are playing. Which games have been most important in your life?