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Pass the parcel in the game of life

The children are becoming fascinated by the idea of games. "I played Bingo Bears today," Jake told me, rolling around the floor with laughter and clutching his belly.

Bingo Bears involved counting, but that was all I could find out. It was the idea of participating in the game which seemed paramount, just as it had at the last birthday party.

Everyone I guess is familiar with that common variant of Pass the Parcel now in use whereby the guests in predetermined sequence duly unwrap a layer each of the parcel and get a sweet. The last layer reveals a small toy. Previously I have always followed the unwritten rules and allowed the birthday boy to get the prize, but last October using the mischievous formula "You're a big boy now" I let the innermost layer pass to whoever the music selected.

In the misery which ensued even the hapless child who had "won" stared bemused at her three-coloured torch while Jake flung himself down on the ground and wailed.

I bit back accusations of "not playing the game", because after all, what game were we playing?

The symmetry of the ritual had been reversed into the cruel asymmetry of a game, one ruled not by benevolent parents but by indifferent chance.

Children cannot readily distinguish games of chance and games of skill. It seems to reflect badly on them if they lose such a simple card game as Beggar my Neighbour and fills them with equally unfounded exultation when they win.

On the other hand, there is no extra allowance made for games of skill like football or catch being more difficult and hence demanding respect for the losers. These parameters have to be set by the adults.

When our reception pupils want to play a game - Bingo Bears or It, Snakes and Ladders or Tom Tiddler's Ground - they do not want to be exposed to the nerves of competition. They seek the knowledge that the classroom is safe, that the teachers are fair judges and that no one will miss out.

And this is quite right, even if "life isn't like that". For all this beginning time as we ask them to surrender their individuality and try to work together as a group, so we have to protect them as individuals. The teachers do this in a number of ways: by celebrating birthdays, excursions and news; by pointing out good work; by discussing behaviour and by getting the children to pass each other the apple slices. Above all, by praise.

Great gulping draughts of praise. By feeling enough of a winner inside, children become able to learn to lose. They can bear to try again.

And this, as we know, is how games become fun, and life - even if "not like that" - offers some possibilities of success.

Patience is a parent helper in a reception class.

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