Two granddaughters of the couple I’ve been staying with came to a visit. We all ate pizza together, talked about television shows they liked, and made jokes about chicken. After dinner, the girls suggested playing Hide and Seek.
They recruited two adults to this – Suzanna (a visiting member of Team Pop-Up Adventure Play) and myself – and seemed only slightly surprised by our enthusiasm. For me, it was an interesting moment because, for all of my time in the field of play and playwork, I spend very little time with children in what might be called my ‘civilian’ capacity. It’s even rarer that I play with children in a place where I’ve been staying.
It reminded me how you experience a home differently through play. In all the evenings I’d spent in this house, I’d never yet pressed myself gasping behind a door, or crouched at the back of a low covered table. The physical memories of Hide and Seek came back at once, overwhelmingly strong.
There was the smell of unexpected dust that caught in the back of my throat as I hid in a cupboard, the sense of my disturbing corners that had been left untouched for a long time, and the conscious need for shallow, silent breathing. Tucked into my space as tightly as a sea creature I felt a particular thrill, the elemental fear of being caught. It quickened my heart and I knew, just knew, that the person rattling the handle on the other side of the cupboard door would hear it thundering in my chest. Then, a puff of relief, of disappointment, blew through me as they left, thinking the cupboard was empty.
The goal of the game is not to win – or if it is, that goal is peripheral to the one of gaining experiences. Hiding means keeping a secret of the self, finding homes for your body in the unlikeliest of places as you tuck in behind curtains, or stand in dry shower cubicles with all your clothes on. Being sought offers a panicky suspense to the player, as sneakiness is pitted against sharp perception. Friends become hunters, and there is nothing one can do once the selection is made but wait, hope, feel one’s blood rush to the heart and the face, and listen for the shouts that accompany catching and being caught.
In a strange way, not being caught is an anti-climax, and the sense of victory is often quickly followed by a fear of being forgotten there. The game moves on without you. Children often want to push for the burst of light as the hiding place is thrown open, and will cough or giggle, or leap from behind the sofa laughing.
When we’d finished, the four players stood on the landing to catch our breaths.
“You’re good hiders,” the older sister said, and behind her words was a small hint of surprise, the echo of the unspoken ending “…for grownups”.
“Thanks,” I replied. “You’re good, too. You’re smaller, but we have the advantage of cunning.” Suzanna laughed, and the younger sister twisted her foot against the thick carpet.
“And practice,” the older one continued. “I bet you played this when you were kids.”
“Yup.” The younger one spun away and ran down the stairs, ready to reunite with her grandparents. Her sister grinned at us, and followed her down. From our spot on the landing, Suzanna and I could hear their voices ring out like bells.
“They’re really good players,” one said. Their grandmother, with whom we’d been talking about playwork, advocacy and all the frustrations and joys of launching a new enterprise, laughed.
“I should hope so!”