The Vastly Underrated Importance of Goofy Little Games

I love this video because it’s a time machine to a lost age of childhood. Here, we see hockey superstars Sidney Crosby and Max Talbot travel to the tiny Crosby family basement in Nova Scotia to do what Sidney spent much of his young life doing: shoot pucks into the Crosby family dryer. (Spoiler alert: Crosby is still pretty good.)

Watching this, readers of a certain age might be transported back to their own basements, and the little games played there. At my house, the favorite game involved roller skates, badminton racquets, and high-speed collisions with the radiator covers (which strongly resembled the Crosby dryer).

It turns out this sort of thing is a pattern. Golfer Rory McIlroy learned to play golf by chipping balls into the family washing machine. Hall of Fame ballplayer Willie Mays practiced hitting by swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick. Cricketer Donald Bradman practiced his batting by bouncing a golf ball off a water tank and hitting the rebound. They aren’t alone. Look deeply into the biography of any top athlete, musician, or writer, and you’ll eventually find a kid in a basement, enraptured by some goofy little game they invented.

So here’s my question: In a world where so much of youth life is highly organized and regimented, do these goofy little games still happen? Do they matter?

I think they do matter. Not just because they’re fun, but also because they’re the crucial learning space where skills are built and refined. Four reasons why goofy little games are important:

  • More engagement: the kid owns the space and sets the rules. Instead of being passive reactors, they are coach, player, and crowd all in one.
  • More focused repetition: kids are not limited by official practice hours or the strategies of a coach. Want to play? Play. Want to obsessively focus on a single move? Do it.
  • Improved creativity: conventional practice is great for fundamentals, but creativity is not built like that. It’s built by messing around: experimenting, trying stuff that might seem crazy in normal settings (for a nice example of this, check out Crosby’s eyes-closed shot to win the game at the 2:20 mark).

The deeper question is, in today’s hyper-organized world, how do you encourage goofy little games? How do you create the sort of environments where a kid can build skills on their own, even if it means absolutely destroying the family dryer?

I’d love to hear any ideas you might have.

(Big thanks to Trevor Parent of the University of Maine at Presque Isle for sharing the video.)