Play Stuff Blog

Playing with Almost Nothing  

In these days of lockdowns and social distancing, resourcefulness has become a watchword in so many facets of our lives. All of us are working to become a little more adept at making the most of what’s immediately at hand in our homes. Fortunately, when it comes to play, sometimes the primary raw material turns out to be ingenuity—something that doesn’t require a trip to the store or an online purchase.

Where’s Waldo? jigsaw puzzle, 1991. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Thinking back to activities from my childhood, it’s kind of amazing how little is sometimes required to create your own game. For indoor fun, my mom would get my sister and me started on a hidden-in-plain-sight game that we called Hide the Thimble. The rules of the game were that a little silver thimble would be placed somewhere in our ell-shaped living room and dining room space. The thimble could be high or low, but it had to actually be visible if you looked from the right direction—not obscured within or beneath anything. Think of it as your own customized version of the Where’s Waldo books, prompting you to carefully scrutinize a familiar space with new eyes. If the searchers got frustrated spotting the thimble, they could be prompted with directions of “You’re getting colder” or “You’re getting warmer” as they veered away from or approached the hiding spot. And the lucky person who found the thimble was rewarded by getting to be the hider for the next round. Don’t have a sewing kit that includes a thimble? You could use any small item that you have on hand to challenge your powers of hiding and detection.

Treasure Hunt board game, about 1935. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Another way we turned our not-very-large house’s interior into a space for unexpected play was to create a multi-step treasure hunt. The treasure itself wasn’t so important—the fun was in creating a series of sequential clues that would lead my sister all over the house to reach the objective. As I recall, I liked to write clues in rhyme: “Violets are blue, Roses are red, Go look in the place where we keep the bread.” Kathy would then scurry to the cabinet where the sandwich bread was stored to find a little slip of paper with the clue for the next stop on the treasure hunt. With any luck, the process of creating and hiding clues, plus the process of ferreting them out, could keep us both occupied for quite a while.

More recently, I’ve used the power of memory to produce my own hyper-personalized version of a trivia game, based on things from our childhoods that only my sister and I would remember. For me, there’s the pleasure of casting my mind back to shared places and experiences from when we were growing up and coming up with mystifying multiple-choice questions that touch on quirky details of our youth. With some effort and concentration, it’s been amazing to discover how I can visualize those long-ago circumstances and retrieve odd flotsam like the last names of seldom-thought-of elementary school friends.

Want to see what a couple of my questions look like?

Which was not a Chihuahua who lived next-door:

  1. Teddy
  2. Tammy
  3. Tina Marie
  4. Teensy
  5. Jimbo

What mishap befell Kathy’s Francie doll:

  1. She was squeezed flat in Dad’s workshop vise
  2. She burned her hair under a light bulb
  3. She was accidentally turned blue by Easter Egg dye

Trivial Pursuit: Unhinged video game, 2004. The Strong, Rochester, New York. The answers, for all of you not finely attuned to the childhood trivia of the Bensch kids are (4) and (2). And, with just a little mental effort, I bet you can come up with your own custom trivia suited to a sibling, spouse, or longtime friend. I promise that the process holds the potential for brightening the day of both the trivia creator and the fortunate recipient, especially if it gives provides a reason to concentrate on something non-viral.

So don’t let the lack of raw materials discourage you from finding ways to gamify life in these constrained times. And, if I’ve gotten you inspired, don’t forget to share your experiences with The Strong’s Play Stories project, dedicated to gathering, preserving, and sharing stories, images, and videos about play in 2020. Put on that thinking cap and there’s no limit on where your playful imagination can take you. Let the games begin!