Our 5-year-old is weird. The kind of weird common to 5-year-olds whose life experiences revolve around chicken nuggets, most of the alphabet and apparently advanced knowledge of molten rock shooting through a rupture in the Earth’s crust.
Seriously. Ask your soon-to-be kindergartener. They’ll enlighten you.
“Run,” she shouted, darting down the hall from the bathroom, the sound of the toilet flushing behind her.
Should I ask? Really? Should I? As Dad I’m pretty sure I should be on the need-to-know end of the information flow in our house, and I can guarantee I didn’t need to know.
I asked anyway. “Why?”
“Lava,” she yelled not two feet from my face. The yelling seemed to come from a sense of urgency, but her mother and I can never tell. Loud is just how she talks. “Lava’s on the floor.”
Then she tossed all the pillows off the couch, draped blankets, scattered books and for some reason pulled our oven mitt from under a pile of toys and stood on it. I never can tell what part of the house is going to appear in another part of the house for no apparent reason.
“Quick. Step on these or you’ll get burned.”
I jumped on a pillow. I certainly didn’t want to get burned.
The lava game is fascinating behavior to consider. I played it when I was her age. Her mother played it. Her siblings played it. I’m sure her grandparents played it as well as Justin Bieber (currently. Really), and quite possibly George W. Bush before elected into office and Donald Trump after.
Children have played the lava game across continents and generations. And the game is always the same.
The floor is covered in molten rock, so you do anything to avoid stepping on it. Walk on pillows, climb furniture, or get a larger human to carry you from room to room, seemingly sacrificing their own life to avoid playing anymore.
I’ve done that.
When playing with multiple people, whoever touches lava is out until the floor turns to an ocean and participants now have to avoid sharks.
Why does every child play this?
Tim Hwang, director of the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative at the Berkman-Klein Center and the MIT Media Lab (his business cards must be 8.5”x11”), authored a 2018 paper on the lava game. Hwang proposes similar architecture in suburban homes that sprang up in the 1950s contributed to the game. These houses had living rooms, which were for play and relaxation. Bedrooms were too small, and after mom told the kids to get the hell out of the kitchen, they went to the living room.
Living rooms have lots of furniture, it’s fun to jump from chairs to the couch, and of course the floor is covered in lava. I wonder how this fit into an architect’s floor plan.
Then the game was born over and over and over again.
Of course, scientists at the University of Leicester in the U.K. determined children couldn’t play this game with actual lava. The temperature would be much too hot for the children to survive.
Scientists take the fun out of everything.
Jason Offutt’s upcoming novel, “So You Had to Build a Time Machine,” is available for preorder at jasonoffutt.com.