August 10, 2007

All Games Lead to Chase

Our children always loved to be chased.

Running exhilarates toddlers, and I suspect the mental challenge of navigating at speed excites them too.

Children never hide their need for attention, but in a game of Chase they feel wanted. They are actively, physically pursued.

Chase even lets toddlers delight in their independence. Running away from Mom is, ultimately, what kids are built to do. Darting away from outstretched arms might deliver an extra frisson because it's practice for the real escape.

And Chase is about love. Ultimately Mom catches the child, and hugs and tickles ensue. (Even if a stubbed toe ends the game prematurely, hugs ensue.) Maybe the promise of affection is the game's biggest appeal.

When Nathaniel and Jessica were first walking, I could start a game of Chase at any time. A fierce look, a sudden movement towards them, stomping my feet so they could hear me coming—any of these could cause them to look up suddenly—is he really chasing me?—and totter away in peals of laughter, abandoning whatever play was at hand.

A little later, whether we were playing Concentration or Construction Trucks, the kids began to initiate the games of Chase. That crazy foreman who always ordered his crew to dump the dirt in the wrong spot would run off in Nathaniel's hand, leaving it up to his dump truck, in my hand, to bring him to justice. Even Construction devolved into Chase.

Tag is Chase with rules. By the time our children played Tag with other kids, they were expert evaders.

Even so, Jessica, fearing capture, would sometimes give up and fall down laughing when no pursuers were near. The anxiety was just too much for her.

Nathaniel was always confused about “It.” No matter how often we told him otherwise, he believed that It was the quarry, not the predator. His goal was escape, not pursuit, and when another child tagged him and called, “You're It!” Nathaniel would zig-zag away. Sometimes the other kids didn't notice, and the playground would be full of frantic children, all running from no one.

I recently played Running Bases with Nathaniel and Jessica. Jessica can throw and Nathaniel can catch. I can't do either, so perhaps the game was doomed from the start. We kept at it for about fifteen minutes, until Nathaniel, about to be tagged, veered off the baseline.

“You can't do that,” I called. “You have to stay between the bases.”

He hesitated. Jessica rallied and took off after him. She heaved the ball at his back, still running wildly, and missed.

“You can't do that,” I called. “You can't throw at him. You have to tag him.”

He snickered over his shoulder. This fresh insult accelerated her.

“You can't do that,” I called. “You can't tag him now—you don't even have the ball.”

Nathaniel put his toe on a rock, and yelled frantically, “I'm safe. No tagging me here.”

“You can't . . .” Oh, what was the use.

Jessica surged towards him, but he darted again.

He led her around the clearing of clover and daffodils that serves as our lawn. Both deftly avoided the wide holes where I had pried out stones and the deep ones where I had spent a morning locating the septic tank. When they came close, I could see the muscles in their calves, and I marvelled at how untoddlerlike their running had become.

Finally they exhausted themselves. Jessica trudged back to me and panted “I'm going in. There's too many bugs out here.” Nathaniel jogged toward the house. “I need water,” he called.

Running Bases was over. No one tallied a final score. Chase had won again.