How a Simple String Game Teaches Powerful Life Lessons
Small enough to be smuggled into a child’s pocket, and too enticing to stay there, it was the kind of object that we teachers spot a mile away and filter from the classroom, because it poses A Distraction.
But in a different space, on a warm sunny day brimming with the promise of spring, it transformed into something else.
It was a loop of string. Just an ordinary string, the ends joined with a simple knot. It was for playing cat’s cradle, the universal game in which two people pass a loop of string back and forth while manipulating it into elaborate shapes with their fingers.
And that is what the two little boys were doing this Friday morning in the courtyard. Instead of playing the usual rambunctious, ultra-competitive games, they hunched together under the overhang, creating complex structures with their tiny hands.
It was the duo’s sheer concentration and purposefulness that struck my colleagues and me. Oblivious to the running and shrieking of their younger classmates, the boys worked with surgeon-like precision, laboring in concert to build beauty from a simple loop of string. With every change of hands, control shifted from one child to the other as the roles reversed. He who held the loop became the one who navigated it.
It was a delicate balance, a gentle ebb-and-flow. Each boy inspected the string carefully before making his next move, knowing that a single misstep could cause the structure to collapse into a tangled mess. Yet neither child flinched. They proceeded boldly and with conviction. After all, if the string is strong and the knot is tight, and both partners are committed, the cat’s cradle can be rebuilt from scratch.
Pairing laser-like focus with childlike wonder, the boys cheered each other on and kept the cat’s cradle going. “You can do it!” one whispered encouragingly, spreading his fingers far apart to allow the other boy more space to grasp the loops. “I got it!” the other announced as he hooked his fingers around the string. Each time the shape morphed successfully into its next incarnation, their faces lit up. At one point they hoisted the cat’s cradle triumphantly, Stanley Cup-style, over their heads.
They kept at it until it was time to line up. The next time we go outside to play, perhaps the string will come out again. But that doesn’t mean the boys have stopped working in the meantime. Because although the string itself is stored away, what started outside is still very much happening; the string was merely the conduit. In those precious moments in the courtyard, two little boys joined hands, hearts, and minds for a common goal.
The real work was, and will always be, intangible. It is the work of all children. It is the planting of the seeds of patience and supportiveness. It is the practice of taking turns. It is the discovery that there is as much joy in helping another succeed as in succeeding yourself.
This work shall not end. It is never done.
Undated photo of my uncle, Dr. Edwin Nolasco, playing Cat's Cradle with his father/my grandfather, Dr. Jesus Nolasco.
This essay was originally published on LinkedIn on April 26, 2016, under the title "A 'Forbidden' childhood toy teaches life lessons."
It is dedicated to my grandfather, Dr. Jesus Nolasco, who played and laughed with us, and at life, till the very end. He passed away Aug. 25, 2004.
Thank you to M and B, two of my former students at Kingsley Montessori School in Boston. You gave us adults an unforgettable lesson in teamwork.
If you liked this article, you may enjoy the book Finger Strings: A Book of Cat’s Cradles and String Figures by Michael Taylor (thank you to Jessica Reardon for sharing this resource!) and the youtube video found here:
Please share your feedback and ideas for similar problem-solving and team building activities in the comments. Thank you!