“Where’s the tiger?”

People often ask whether busy playspaces become “out of control”, as if children’s first taste of freedom might incite a Lord of the Flies-style bacchanal.

I think they’re wondering whether play takes children out of their own control, out of the controlling influences of adult-designed and adult-monitored spaces.  For what it’s worth, I think it does, and that it’s wonderful because of it.  Without this process, how will children learn self-control, and freedom of thought?

At any rate, this whole question underestimates the very real capacities children have to navigate complex environments, to balance the conflicting needs of a number of individuals and social groups, and to respond thoughtfully and fluently to a range of social cues.  In busy play settings, you can see any number of small moments which demonstrate children’s skilled management of multiple play agendas, ensuring that everyone has the chances they need to play.

But, this too, is a learned skill.

Here are two stories on the subject:

1.  Not very long ago, I was a monster, stretching over a half-door to tear at children with my poisoned talons.  They were in screaming ecstasies as I growled and lurched, before we were interrupted by a small cough behind them.  Monster and children paused in word-unnecessary stillness, while the other child opened the half-door and moved past me.  This monster’s cage was that boy’s kitchen, and he carried his bucket of soapy water past us all on his ‘cleaning duty’, closing the door behind him with a sigh as deep as that of any put-upon tea lady.  As soon as he was safely past, the growling and screaming began again.

2.  On another afternoon, I was a tiger, prowling around a small pop-up tent in which a boy rolled around, squealing and giggling.  He unzipped the door of the tent and looked at me, face open and shining, panting with laughter.

“Tiger!” he said.

“What tiger?” I asked.  “I can’t see a tiger.  Can you?”  He shook his head, grinning, and I continued, speaking in that sing-song voice of play-suspence.  “There isn’t one over here…  Can you see one over there?”  I pointed behind him and as he turned to look I leaned in and growled deeply, right behind his ear.

“Tiger!” He squealed, and bolted back into the tent.  The cycle began again, as I growled and pawed at the tent.  He screamed, then peered out every so often for me to play dumb, to play my dual role of the tiger, and the not-tiger.  Beside me, his younger sister sighed over her quiet game with the small plastic animal figurines.  Finally, she’d had enough of us, our noise, our repetition.

“There!” she said, after the fifth or sixth rendition.  In her fist was a small plastic tiger, striped in black and orange.  She opened her hand to push it against her brother’s face, saying “tiger, there.”  Her brother looked at her, sitting cross-legged on the pad of her nappy and surrounded by miniature farm animals.  He looked down at the chipped plastic tiger, now legs-up on the ground, and decided not to explain.  Instead, he got out of the tent and pushed at my shoulders, directing me inside.

“Now you,” he said.  “It’s your turn to be…”  and here he paused.  We hadn’t yet said what was inside the tent, the nature of the thing that fears being eaten.  In play, an unexplained role is a space in the world, a possibility. “It’s your turn to be the children!”  I nodded, and got inside the tent.  One of the easy things about recasting a game-in-progress is that you already know your lines.

“Where is the tiger?” I asked, and his little sister made a face of profound frustration.

“THERE!” she shouted, picking up the figurine and throwing it at us hard.

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