I don’t have much experience with smaller children – I usually see kids when they hit about 6 and are either following older siblings or busily pretending they don’t know them. The children in the latter group are sometimes so definite on their needs for play that they seem to view their older siblings as inefficient guardians who are to be humoured and then dodged as quickly as possible.
“FATOU, get over here!” The bellow comes from the corner of the housing estate where Fatou’s older sister is waiting. She wants to go to the shop with her friends but can’t leave Fatou alone. “FATOU!” Fatou, meanwhile, is contentedly patting a ball of mud and glitter together.
“Isn’t that your sister calling?” I ask.
“No,” she says, selecting a piece of branch with a leaf on it to plant in the glittery hill.
“Are you sure?” I ask, teasing. “It sure sounds like her, and she’s calling your name.” She shakes her head and pressing the branch into place.
“No, it’s a different sister. And it’s a different Fatou, too.”
Sometimes though I meet children younger than that, and when I do we often end up playing chase. I don’t mind, having by now worked out a pretty fair monster impersonation and developed my talon hands (which are like jazz hands, but obviously far scarier). They look up, eyes wide with excitement and their mouths open, grinning. I chase. They scream and run, wanting to be caught and not wanting to be caught, then starting all over again. They want to be picked up and spun or tickled, then they shriek, they want you to stop, then they want you to chase them again. It’s a set of really clear play cues and is perhaps one of the first human games. It seems fundamental in some way, so basic in its thrills.
I asked an older girl once what she thought of it, why she thought younger children love it . I asked what she thought showed that you were ‘playing’ chase, and not actually chasing. She shrugged, seeming to suggest that I must already know how it worked – or else how was I doing it?
“The way you do it,” she said, of the person giving chase. “It’s the way you act makes it funny.”