“Poster!” David yelled as he leapt up to knock the ball out of Isaiah’s hands.
Isaiah jumped, though not quite as high as David, as he was much shorter, and twisted his body around, narrowly, but deftly avoiding David’s outstretched arm, and throwing his ball between the monkey bars that the boys had turned into a makeshift hoop.
As the boys’ feet returned to the ground, Isaiah took up a posture similar to that of an NFL player in the end zone while David walked forlornly back to his group leaning coolly against the slides. Then Joey and Ky stepped up to take their places, Joey picking up the ball from the ground and stepping back to give himself room to run.
I watched the group of boys play this game for an hour. I don’t know what the game was called, but I feel fairly comfortable guessing that before we reached the park that afternoon, it didn’t even exist. I watched it evolve. First, just a couple of boys were on the monkey bars, trying to knock each other off. Then, some other boys came in with a little soccer ball and started shooting “baskets” using the monkey bars as a hoop. Then the boys who were knocking each other off the monkey bars began trying to knock the ball away before the boys shooting hoops could score. At first, this started a conflict: the hoop-shooters complained loudly that the monkey-bar-ers were ruining the game, and told them to get out of the way. But then, gradually, the two groups meshed and the “Poster” game was born.
The word “Poster,” had an interesting evolution, too. It started before the initial conflict was resolved: when the monkey-bar boys would swing themselves into the oncoming ball, they would yell something like, “Posted!” And then when the game formed more sophisticated rules, the boy blocking the hoop would yell “Poster!” as he jumped into the air. Boys on the sidelines would continue to swing into each other, picking “teams” by choosing whether to knock over either the boy guarding the hoop or the boy with the ball, and then yelling “Poster!” as their legs made contact with his hips. Sometimes, the word would morph, and the boys would yell “Post that!” or “Post-it Note!” or “Posterized!” And sometimes boys—especially shorter boys whose heads only came up to the taller boys’ waists—would complain about the extraneous side-line “Poster!”s and tell them to stop. Overall, though, the game reached a point of solidity when rules stopped changing.
I was just supervising (and clearly doing a stand-up job…) but I was fascinated watching the development of the game and its rules. It was resourceful and creative, and the large group of boys didn’t need to communicate specifically, or even very much at all about what the rules were and how to play.
I know I’ve played some games like that in my life.
I don’t remember how old I was, but one year, when my mother’s family was all camping in the woods of Colorado, my cousin, Jacob and I ran off to play while the adults set up camp. He and I ran through the trees up hills and across little streams. There was a method and a structure to our play, though I don’t remember its specifics. I just remember that, at certain, prescribed intervals, when one of us was ahead of the other, we would yell, “Come, my friend!” to each other. We did this for at least 30 minutes, and for the rest of the camping trip, every once in a while, I’d look at Jake and ask, “Do you want to play, ‘Come my friend’?” and he would nod and we would run off.
Another time, my friend Cari and I were in her basement with a little inflatable beach ball. Her older brother had one of those mini-basketball hoops set up, and someone had put an open shoebox underneath it. Cari and I began rolling the ball back and forth, and then tossing it back and forth, and then taking turns tossing it into the hoop. At some point, we started saying the phrase, “Lots-of-points!” in time with the ball: when it would hit the backboard of the hoop, we’d say, “Lots!”; when it would go through the net, we’d say “Of!”; and when it would land in the shoe box, we’d say, “Points!” We did move the shoebox after a while, because we spent a lot of time getting “Lots-of!”s with no “Points!” After moving the box, however, we started getting “Lots-Points!” I bet if you were to ask Cari, she’d say that she still remembers this game, too, even if the details are a little fuzzier.
The human imagination is a wonderful thing. It may have its greatest power in the mind of a child, building games out of nothing, but it never outlives its usefulness: it is, I would argue, the precursor and a prerequisite to innovation. We go from dreaming up fantastic What-If scenarios—mine usually involved owning a horse or being able to fly—to seeing needs in the world and dreaming up ways to meet them. We go from playing pretend with our friends to discovering empathy for people we’ve never met and cultures we’ve never encountered. We go from constructing simple games using what tools and people we have around us to being able to juggle what life throws at us and turn it into a worthwhile experience. The grown-up imagination may look less glamorous than Isaiah did as he strutted over that playground, running his fingers through his hair and sporting the duckiest of duck faces, but it gets things done, and I find it just as fascinating.