Have you ever stopped and looked at the kind of games our children usually play at birthday parties? Fortunate to be in the parent-family of a school, which has a different school of thought, I am learning to question before adopting any standard practices. It amazed me no end to see how these common birthday party games are structured to promote development of qualities like 'Winning', 'Getting Ahead', 'Asserting' and 'Grabbing' too, starting with kids as young as 3 or 4 years old.
I felt especially uncomfortable with the concept of 'elimination' and 'winning'. Come on, competition at this stage! To begin with, it is difficult for a 3 or 4 year old to even grasp the rules of a game like musical chair. And I have found it almost impossible to answer a child 'why he has to go out of the game just because he could not run faster or could not comprehend the game rules or could not grab a chair fast or had to release the chair because someone else pushed him'. I have often seen the parents of the eliminated child desperately struggling to console him/her and trying to reason out, while the game continues with other children. I personally feel scared when the children start running and pushing each other, all to grab a seat as fast as possible. I am not sure what are we teaching the child through this game especially at this stage of life.
Then there is this game where the host throws a lot of straws and children are encouraged to grab as many as possible. The one who can grab the maximum is declared the winner and gets a prize. What did we teach the child- 'Get ahead and Grab'?
There is also this 'Khoi Bag' practice where a paper bag filled with goodies (toffees and small toys) is hung at an upper level. Children gather around the bag and the game organizer pierces the bag. A mad scramble follows, as the children try to collect as many goodies as possible. This is the 'literal loot game' with no pretence. Do I need to say more?
When I celebrated birthday for my son (4 year old) recently at Pizza Hut, I tried to stay away from the competitive games as far as possible. I explained to the host that there will no winners and no prizes. We played many rounds of 'musical statue' with the kids without any elimination. We explained the rules to the kids and helped them to be still for a count of 5. They had lot of fun and I did not feel there was any natural urge in them to win as far as they were having fun. The game helped them participate together, have fun and and also learn to 'concentrate'. Then my sister-in-law suggested a game of 'balloon race'. I would like to rename it to 'balloon walk'. The children were told to place a balloon tucked inside their legs and walk slowly, making sure the balloon does not fall out. The children were allowed as many tries as they wanted. They were having fun as there was a challenge involved. They were also learning to 'concentrate and balance'. After a few minutes, something strange happened. The Pizza Hut host suddenly tried to convert the game into a race and helped one boy walk faster and declared him the winner. Not only this, he gave him a prize on his own. All this happened so fast that I could not intervene to stop him. I was really upset. Luckily too many children did not notice or get concerned. But I could immediately see how difficult it is for society to change. That guy was finding it very hard to digest how a game could be played without declaring a 'winner'. Perhaps he thought I had been sloppy and had not arranged a prize so he went out of the way to give something from his own stock.
I had requested my 10 year old daughter to take charge of arranging other activities for the kids. My kids refused to call in a tattoo-maker, though I could not see why. She asked me to arranged for papers, crayons, stickers and clay for the children. The kids had a good time playing with all of these. The stickers were used in a variety of ways - from decorating the balloons, to making cards and even for making tattoos on their arms, which kids did on their own. All this without any winning, losing, looting or grabbing!