For young people, circumstance and free time are often the mother of playtime inventions.
Today, this fact is frequently buried under a heavy schedule of adult-supervised little-league games, dance classes, and hours in front of Super Mario Bros.
Take, for example, the game sixth-grader Taylor Donner concocted three years ago. That's when his grandmother's gardening, his dart-playing, and a backyard full of Florida grapefruit mixed in his mental blender.
"I had a little dartboard out in the yard and my grandma was using a shovel to garden," Taylor relates from Vero Beach, Fla. " 'Hey, Nana, I've got a good idea. [Let's] shoot the grapefruits at the board using the shovel.' My grandma tried it and my mom tried it and they hit the target."
Voila! The game of "Target" was born.
Things might have ended right there if Taylor's elementary school principal hadn't shared an invitation he received to submit ideas to a new TV show: "Z Games."
The Disney Channel program features innovative games invented by kids, for kids. The name "Z Games" plays on the popularity of new-age, "extreme" sports featured in ESPN's X Games (street lugeing, rock climbing, etc.).
"In the hierarchy of games," says the show's executive producer Don Wells, "Z games might one day become X Games, which might one day become Olympic sports." Far-fetched maybe, but what are children's games for, after all, if not to stretch the envelope of possibility?
"Target" is one of four games chosen for the premire, which airs Sunday April 11 at 5:05 p.m. It will share time with Odd Ball, played with half a rubber baseball, Cougar Ball, a hybrid of soccer and football, and Field Ball, which combines kicking and throwing a ball as well as tossing a Frisbee.
After filming the first 13 episodes, Mr. Wells of Highland Productions, says he's encouraged by what's happening in backyards and on school playgrounds. "Creativity," he says, "is absolutely thriving."
Captured on the 500 hours of footage shot were games that used soda bottles, garbage cans, bricks, bean bags, milk cartons, plastic crates, a ditch, and a shower curtain, plus numerous balls and goals.
The show taps the resourcefulness and spontaneity of youngsters by including a Z Lab segment. This is a 20-minute race against the clock in which several kids work together to come up with an original game using sports equipment and household items.
Lack of space, people, or resources often impels children to adapt existing games and sports or to create their own from scratch, Wells says. "In rural areas there's a ton of room," he explains, "but that space means fewer kids are close by to play a game. So they reduce the number of players and spin that into the rules of their game."
In choosing among more than 2,000 game ideas submitted for the series, Wells says a first-line consideration was safety. Accessibility, too, was important, meaning that children from "all over" should have the means to play. If a game met these criteria, the next question was: Does it look as if it would be fun to watch?
Children 9 to 11 make up the target audience for the show, but the on-air gamemeisters are generally 11 to 14. This helps when it comes to filming the show, the first series created for the Disney Channel's two-hour Zoog Disney afternoon programming block. The youths explain their own games.
"The ability of the kids to communicate varies, but we don't screen out great games on that basis," Well says. "We look at the game itself. "
Caution: water-filled balloons
Taylor's original idea was to launch grapefruit - ones fallen from the trees in his yard - at a dartboard. Few children have such projectiles handy, so the rules now call for flinging water balloons at a flat-lying plywood target.
The members of a three-person team try to fire off as many balloons as possible in a minute, while their opponents, stationed in the target area, try to block the balloons before they hit their mark. A handkerchief, tied to the shovel handle, cradles the balloons. They are catapulted by jumping on the flat shovel blade. The edges of the blade are foam-padded for safety.
One thing producer Wells expects "Z Games" will show is that homemade games are a universal language. "Many kids are playing the same basic game, with slightly different rules, but a completely different name," he says.
To spread the word and engage viewers, there's a Web site, www.zoogdisney.com. But ultimately, a trip into cyberspace is not the point.
Wells wants "Z Games" to "inspire and encourage kids to get off the couch, go outside, and play."