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A Different Game of Cat and Mouse

June 8, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children play chen qiu rong, or "Chinese jump rope." Photo: Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' Moving Forward program uses sports and games activities to facilitate psychosocial recovery for disaster-affected youth. Conceptualized by Nike and developed by Mercy Corps in conjunction with CARE, Moving Forward has been used in two previous crises: helping children recover from trauma stemming from the 2007 Peru earthquake and from social unrest in Kenya surrounding its 2007 presidential election.

Although sports and games are universal, Moving Forward is adapted prior to each implementation to ensure that it's culturally relevant and accessible to the local population. Matt Streng, Mercy Corps' Program Officer for Health, Youth and Sports, has been working for the past week in Chengdu to adapt Moving Forward and ready it for use in the Sichuan earthquake zone.

Matt has gone to Sichuan University's primary school to determine what kinds of games are popular with the local children. In the school's "chatting room," he met six children — three each of girls and boys, ages 6-8 — along with the school counselor and the students' teacher.

The students described, and then demonstrated, a variety of local games. One game involved keeping a toy reminiscent of a hacky sack in the air with one's feet.

Another game, called chen qiu rong or "Chinese jump rope," required the use of a large elastic band. Two children loop the band around the backs of their ankles and stand facing each other, three or more feet apart, with the elastic band stretched between them. To get an idea of this, just imagine putting both your index fingers on the inside of a rubber band and stretching it taut.

A third child then jumps between the elastic bands in an elaborately choreographed pattern of moves. The elastic band can be raised, to the knees, waist, or even shoulders of the supporting players, to heighten the difficulty or change the challenges of the game.

The last game was a variation on tag, with a cat and mouse theme. A group of children, identified as mice, stand on one leg, supporting one another. They hop forward as a group, four times. Then a sole child, the cat, hops forward three times. The cat then pushes the mice, and the mice have to resist. If all of the mice remain upright on one foot, the game continues. But if one of the mice places a second foot on the ground, then that mouse becomes the cat for the next round of play.

Matt thought the cat and mouse game could readily be adapted for Moving Forward. "The mice are all standing on one leg, supporting each other, trying to resist a challenge posed by the cat — you can go anywhere with that," he said.

Here's how it could work: after the children play the game for several rounds, the caregiver could call a break and ask the children how they feel. They know that they have to resist the cat, but also know that they can rely on the other mice for support. What if they had to resist the cat on their own? And what's the significance of the fact that all the mice stand on one leg? Can the children think of other examples from their own lives about how they might be "standing on one leg" in some way, but that they have support from their family or community to compensate?

Matt incorporates local games, like the cat and mouse version of tag, into the Moving Forward activity guide that he's been preparing for use in an upcoming training of Moving Forward master trainers (that is, people who will train the caregivers who work with children). By design, the caregivers themselves will continue this process of adaptation.

The Moving Forward program met the approval of at least one youngster at Sichuan University's primary school. After hearing Matt give a brief overview, this girl piped up, "That's a good idea. I prefer playing games and sports to talking to the counselor in the chatting room."

"Besides," she added, "after you play sports, you're tired, and it's easier to share your feelings."