'Do over!' Life lessons on the school playground

Some mornings, standing by the foursquare court on recess duty, I forget that arguing the rules is a major part of the game.

When this happens, I feel obliged just to grab the ball in response to the heated argument over rules, lines, turns, etc. Play stops. We wait.

"Would you rather argue or actually play?" I ask. The fierce players adjust and resume play, usually because they agree to a "do over." The game beckons. It is more fun to play than argue.

Foursquare is a pretty good game. (Picture four kids, each covering a quadrant of a yellow-lined cube, with a bouncy red ball. Only one touch is allowed per player as the ball goes back and forth. If you miss, you go to the back of the line and the next player steps in.)

It's an even better metaphor for a lot of what we work on in school ... and life. Foursquare creates individual competition, but allows for teamwork and a set of standards; it's a game of balance, timing, opportunity, and agility.

Everyone eventually gets a "do over." And no matter how hard an individual wants to control the rules - "I call no spinsies!" "No slamming!" - the corps of players determines the standards, more or less democratically.

And then there are those yellow lines. Can't argue with succinct boundaries painted for all to see. And if you don't like the way that serve or volley went, you either walk to the end of the line or plead your case in the court of fellow-player opinion: "Do over!"

Sometimes you get another chance right away; sometimes you have to work your way back up the line to square one. Of course, some players invoke the option of kicking the ball over the fence and walking away. Not a great life tactic!

A wise kindergarten teacher once told me, "We spend most of our lives working on appropriate control." How true. It's an obvious part of foursquare; less obvious as you do a writing or math assignment, participate in a teacher meeting, or work out friendship knots.

In these latter arenas the boundary lines aren't as clearly drawn, but the game is still about appropriate control: Where do my current skills end and my new ones begin? Where do my intellectual or emotional needs, rights, and responsibilities end, and the rights, needs, and responsibilities of a classmate or neighbor begin?

Referees and teachers can help coax a lesson out of conflict. But ultimately, for the game to persist, it's the players who must discipline the action in a way that benefits all.

The hardest lesson in foursquare is probably admitting that you're out - that the other guy made a good play or you made a mistake - and that you don't deserve a "do over." But getting out gracefully just might be the ultimate example of appropriate control - not getting what you want, but accepting the rules, knowing your turn will come around again. In this respect, what happens on the morning foursqare court embodies some of our deepest hopes for what goes on during the rest of the school day.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine, Maine.

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