They appear at my office door five minutes before the start of every recess and ask, "Will you come turn for us?" It is the Jump-Rope Squad. In the morning, as they pour off the bus, they dash to the ropes for some before-school jumps. During even the smallest interstice in the school day, the ropes start whirling and jumpers start jumping. Got your snow pants and winter boots on? No big deal. Is the windchill factor minus 20 degrees? Jump faster. Didn't wear a belt to school today? Hold on to your pants with your free hand or wear suspenders tomorrow!
There's something about the vernal equinox or the flow of sap that makes the kids at my school – virtually all the kids at my school – start to jump rope as soon as spring is on the horizon.
Why is it so much fun to get your feet off the ground? It's simply one of the few games we play that anyone of any size or age can share. Large and small, rhythmic and unrhythmic alike, they wait in line, dash into the asphalt jumping zone at the front door of the school, and have their "ups" inside the fiendish whirling rope.
There is usually a chorus of encouragement with occasional hints of nagging about line order ("mind the queue," as the British say), making jump-rope a fascinating sociological study.
This just might be the most democratic of games, and the challenge isn't entirely physical. The social and mental dexterity is as valuable as anything going on with your timing and legs.
Every kid is competing with his or her own last, best outing. And the corps of jumpers sometimes aspires to a group effort. ("Let's get a really big rope and try having the whole school jump!" was a recent suggestion. It could happen!) Everyone is working to make everyone else successful.
Whether turning or jumping, we all want the count to go astoundingly high. There's universal pleasure in seeing a second-grader who, only a couple of days prior could hardly jump three revolutions, now reach double digits.
The sky's the limit. Now that we have the basics down, elaborations on the skills and rules are evolving. Is it better to start from a standstill with the rope or to let the turners get a rhythm established and then jump in? If one is going to jump into a whirling rope, is it better to launch from the clockwise or counterclockwise side? If adding people into the jumping zone for a group-record attempt, how close together should they stand?
It's a rare team sport that doesn't have an opponent – or an offense and a defense. Yet it's pure competition – you against gravity and your previous achievement.
In some ways, it's even similar to the circus. In fact, on Thursday, sixth-grader Alex juggled while he jumped!
Every good playground game has room for the showoffs. Boys like to drop on all fours and let the rope skim under them. Girls like to touch the ground or attempt patty-cake word games while jumping.
Then there are the speed demons: After 10 repetitions, the speed goes up. Green light, 0 to 60 in 10 seconds, and then it's redline time, 120 revolutions per minute, for the truly hyperactive. My arm aches.
Could a toy be any simpler? For all the fancy electronic tools and games available to kids, it's this old-fashioned rope revolving at 50 r.p.m. that gives the most pleasure.
Not so sure about jumping? We need counters on the sidelines. Bess is good at counting, so she stands at my elbow and enumerates.
There's an interesting interplay of individual and group cooperation in jump-rope. As I stand at one end of the rope, I become invisible. My job is no longer to be school principal but simply to make the rope go around and around.
I'm not the umpire or rulemaker, just the watcher, though I do remind them of some of the laws of thermodynamics and geometry at work. The jumpers make the rules and strategies, and the ingenious methods as to how to add people, how to start, how to determine who messes up, and who turns next.
I gotta go. They're at the door again. To every season, turn, turn, turn.