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Playground politics

If my son’s school were a sovereign nation, waffle blocks would be its primary form of currency.

For the uninitiated, waffle blocks are interlocking plastic toys that can be linked together to build much larger structures. They’re like a simplified Lego for the playground, but without all the commercial tie-ins and the blinding pain of stepping on them barefoot at 3 a.m. on the way to the bathroom.

As such, they are the most popular recess toy at Arthur’s school. Nothing holds a candle to waffle blocks. Chalk? Balls? Mere role players compared to the LeBron James-esque magnetism and demand for the waffle blocks.

But like King James, the waffle blocks are a very scarce commodity. There are roughly 15 to 25 pre-school-aged children on the playground at recess, and only one bucket of blocks to go around. Just like in real life, when you introduce a coveted-yet-limited resource into an unstable regime, you’re sowing the seeds for a chaotic powder keg of hurt feelings and bit fingers that is just waiting to be ignited.

Although every child would ideally like to enjoy full, unadulterated possession of the entire waffle block collection, they are at least mature enough to know that’s impossible.

There are simply too many kids fighting for a singular property. Inevitably, the children form tribes of like-minded peers bound by their mutual interest in how best to utilize the blocks.

There is the Birthday Tribe, which likes to build small cubes out of the blocks and pretend they are birthday presents. There are the Engineers, to which my son belongs. They prefer to make roads and houses, building small cities that are in a perpetual state of construction that are much like our lovely I-5 interchange project. Then there are the Weapon Smiths, who are able to turn even the most mundane piece of playground equipment into ballistic artillery with which they wage their eternal recess battles.

Naturally, every tribe feels they are entitled to all of the blocks, and any rival who infringes on this right is committing an unforgivable act of aggression.

This is where I step in.

Each Tuesday’s trip to volunteer at my son’s school is a lesson in political science and diplomacy. I must deftly work as arbitrator for the waffle blocks to make sure every tribe has appropriate access to the limited, yet highly coveted toy. I end up being the Henry Kissinger of the playground. I move from tribe to tribe, trying to maintain peace and order in a place that wipes a poopy diaper on such concepts.

Waffle block raiding parties are a constant threat to tribes who turn their backs for even a moment. I’ll be playing with one particular group when their plunderers return triumphantly with armfuls of blocks to add to their coffers. These parties are usually trailed by a group of enraged 4-year-olds holding back tears and ready to throw down in fisticuffs over three dollars’ worth of worn plastic.

This allows me the opportunity to bring the two groups together to explain about concepts like sharing and logical resource distribution, which always falls on deaf cries of “BUT I WANT IT!”

As I enter into complex waffle block negotiations, it leaves an opening for chaos to take hold. And here’s where a fourth tribe, the Jokers, makes its entrance.

I call them the Jokers because they all just want to watch the world burn. The Jokers hold no value for waffle blocks. They don’t want to play with them, but they see that other children place value in the toys and that weakness can be exploited for an emotional reaction.

The Jokers hide in the shadows, inside the playhouse or under the jungle gym, waiting for one of the tribes to drop their guard.

That’s when they move in, swiftly destroying all the guns, birthday presents or houses with shocking efficiency.

They leave wreckage in their wake, walking away with a smirk as the shattered tribe attempts to make sense of this mindless devastation.

The great thing about 4-year-olds though, is that they don’t have a fully developed sense of spite.

They don’t hold onto grudges like a cold pillow on a warm night, like us mature adults, and I find that beautiful and refreshing. For all the hurt feelings, disorder and confusion that take place on the school ground each recess, it all gets forgotten when the whistle is blown for lunch. And that’s how it should be.

If only Dr. Kissinger had it this easy.




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