Along with telling stories about how many miles we used to walk through the snow to school, we adults sometimes bewail the modern child's dependence on television and prepackaged games: "They don't use their imaginations anymore!" Yet I know three children so eager to pretend that they almost succeeded in beating me at my own game.
I was asked to look after three first-graders for half an hour. I had been left with instructions, but the board game we were supposed to play was nowhere in sight.
The kids – Cody, Janna, and Rudyard – were calm, but I knew that wouldn't last. I looked around and saw a jar of buttons, some "hundred charts" (square mats numbered 1 to 100), and nothing else.
It was time to improvise.
"OK, kids," I said, "we're going to play a game, and we have only pretend dice, so you have to roll like this."
I demonstrated by cupping my hands around nothing, shaking the nothing, and dropping it out of my hands.
The nothing fell on the tabletop, where I peered at it. "There, see?" I said. "It's three, so everybody move your button. You're starting on one, so it's one plus three."
I figured that the concept of a pretend die was sufficiently challenging, so during this first round I had them all make the same moves. We could get more elaborate during the second round.
After clarifying with me that it was just one numbered cube, the children moved their buttons to the four spot, and I handed the invisible cube to Janna. She took it with elaborate care, cupped her hands, shook, rolled, and then examined the tabletop where the cube would have fallen had it been real.
"Six," she announced. She and the boys moved their buttons forward. The game seemed to stop for a moment, until Cody said, "C'mon, Janna, gimme the dice!"
"I already did!" she said. "Right there." She pointed to an empty space near his hand.
He looked down. "Oh," he said, "I didn't see it."
I suppressed a howl of laughter, while the younger players waited, serious and silent, as Cody picked up the cube and took his turn. He passed it to Rudyard, who shook his handful of air so many times that I had to tell him to roll already.
They continued taking turns. When they had reached 50, Cody looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. "I wonder who will win?" he asked.
Puzzled, I gazed at him. Didn't he understand that they would all get to 100 at the same time?
Then I understood. After all, the real object of our game was to pretend. So, anything could happen!