The Playground Rules



Jennifer Ott

Games We Still Play

MY FAVORITE GAME AS A CHILD WAS DUCK, DUCK, GOOSE. There was suspense and the thrill of the chase. Others may have preferred hide-and-seek, but that could get really boring if you were good at hiding. Dodgeball seemed incredibly cruel to me, unlike kickball, which was fun if you had coordination.

As we grew, the games became organized sports — baseball, basketball, football. All games and sports not only required physical, but mental, ability. We needed to be able to challenge our opponents mentally, whether it was surprising someone by tagging them and yelling “Goose,” or eyeing them down from the pitcher’s mound. We called this “psyching someone out.”

Unfortunately, many such games moved off the playing fields and into the classrooms, and beyond. The intent was to manipulate and in some cases hurt. Many of us are sadly familiar with the game of intimidation.

While many have stopped playing organized games on the playing fields, as adults, the emotional and mental games continued. And since we have had years of practice playing mental games we have gotten very good at it. If only they handed out awards and ribbons for intimation and manipulation.

Why are we so driven to play games of intimidation and manipulation, and to “win”? And why do we feel the need to play these games to get what we want? If we have to manipulate another in order to achieve our goals, can we truly call ourselves a winner? Not unlike our younger selves, our goal should be to win at something based on our own merit instead of manipulating others.

Love and Fear on the Playground

We often hear phrases such as “your inner child”. Some venture out to find their inner child, but we are who we were at age ten. We didn’t change; what changed is what happened to us on the road of life.

It is the same for loving and not-so-loving relationships. The relationships forged on the playground helped define us. As I said, I just hated dodgeball. What sadist came up with that game? I did not like having a hard rubber ball thrown at me, nor do I like throwing a ball at someone else. To this day, I do not like to see people hurt that way — singled out and belittled.

It was on the playground where we met our best friends, threw punches at our so-called enemies, and developed crushes. Here we also learned to stand on our own; we learned independence. It was where you faced your bullies and learned how to defend yourself. The playground of youth continues to define us.

Of course, bullies exist beyond the playground. We find them in the workforce and sometimes even in our own homes. They can make our jobs miserable just as they did on the playground. Many of us have been victims of gossip, felt the sharp metaphorical dagger in our backs, or received harsh threats from bad bosses.

We will never be free of bullies in our life, so we need to know how to handle them. And the key to handling a bully is to have the confidence to handle ourselves. No one can hurt or intimidate you, if you don’t let them.

Now, intimidation, no less than competition, is a factor in life as well as sport. So it is important to realize this is our game, our race, and no one else’s. Whether we are an athlete, an artist, or whatever, these seemingly innocuous playground lessons carry over into our lives, jobs and social interactions. There are times in our adult life when we just have to live our own lives, try not to mind the lives – or words — of others, and allow ourselves time to stop the race, take a breath and assess our life on our own terms so we can continue on, stronger.

The World as Playground

Today’s big issues are not much different from the issues we dealt with on the playground. We drew boundaries and dared others to cross. We bullied weaker kids and stole their lunch money. We laughed and ridiculed other’s differences.

Bullies were only kids who lacked good parenting or real self-esteem, acting out for attention, dying to be heard. And sometimes, all you needed to do was befriend them.

Nations are not that much different. Leaders of nations and ethnic groups need to be heard. Everyone deserves a voice regardless of whether we agree or disagree with what they have to say. Those who bully and act out on the world stage often want us to see what their problem is, to understand what they are lacking.

Of course, where once we had fists and spit balls, now we warring adults have bombs and chemical weapons. So if trying to listen, understand and negotiate doesn’t work at first, how about this…

Imagine if all the world’s leaders got together for a good game of dodgeball. Last leader standing could be given a medal, deemed Number One World Leader for a month, or something. Maybe we adults can benefit from the simpler rules of the playground – and I can finally find some good in dodgeball.

Author and publisher Jennifer Ott is currently in the process of publishing three new books: The Insurrectionist, One with the Wind, and Saying Goodbye. Originally from Pennsylvania, she now resides in Southern California. To learn more, see:

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