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November 29, 2005

Candy Land for Marathoners

The board game Candy Land was recently inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, taking its place alongside such distinguished members as Mr Potato Head, Silly Putty, and the Etch-A-Sketch.

The game also has a prominent place in our family, especially for our 4-year-old daughter, who will solicit a game with anyone who happens to be around. On my days off from work, it has become a morning ritual: wake up early to run, come home and have breakfast, then play Candy Land with her before I have the luxury of showering.

So after playing what must have been my 100th game of Candy Land with her this week, I decided to investigate further to find out just what the game was instilling in us.

Candy Land was the creation of Eleanor Abbott, a polio victim who devised the game in the 1940s for children who were recuperating from the disease to entertain themselves while passing long hours in bed. The Milton Bradley Company first marketed her idea in 1949, and the game has been in continuous production ever since.

Modern versions of the game contain a back-story inside the game box which explains the players’ task. King Kandy and his castle have mysteriously disappeared, hidden away in the sky by the evil Lord Licorice.

Optimistic Gramma Nutt believes that only a special boy or girl can find the castle, and Princess Lolly describes the potential heroes as “courageous, clever, and ever so determined."

Sounds simple enough. So...what lessons can this game teach a marathon runner and his young princess?

Lesson 1: Despite the perceived element of competition, the journey to Candy Castle is an individual one. Only the color-coded cards determine how far players move on each turn, and one player’s movements can never affect another player’s.

In other words, run your own race. It’s the oldest advice a marathoner can hear.

A player who draws a character cards is automatically sent to that character’s square on the board. Early in the game, any character is a boon, but as you get further along the trail, the character cards can also pull you backwards.

So if you draw Queen Frostine early, your chances of winning are pretty good – unless you also draw Plumpy on one of your next turns. (It’s interesting that the rotund character closest to the start is called Plumpy, while those nearest the finish - Princess Lolly and Queen Frostine - definitely have a runner’s build. In a marathon field, they would probably be similarly positioned.)

This second lesson for marathoners is similar to the first. Don’t try to hang with runners who go off the front. Chances are, they’ll come back to you in the later miles if you keep a steady pace.

Lessons 3-5 involve three spots on the board where a player loses a turn. The first one, at about the halfway point, is “Stuck on a Gooey Gumdrop” – not unlike getting a stomach cramp after drinking too much at an aid station. It’s a minor annoyance, but early enough that you can regroup and hit your pace again soon.

The next pitfall, “Lost in Lollipop Woods,” comes about two-thirds of the way into the course. It’s like developing blisters before the 20-mile point, and is frequently problematic. You’re forced to slow down as your competitors catch up or pull away from you. It’s emotionally damaging, but not debilitating enough to prevent you from continuing along the path to the finish.

The final setback, “Stuck in Molasses Swamp,” is like getting muscle spasms in the final 5K. At this point, you are so close to the finish, you’re almost certain to make it there, but at least a few minutes slower than your expected time.

Eventually somebody will reach the Candy Castle and be declared the game’s winner. But for preschoolers, winning isn’t the real goal of the game.

Since the game is entirely dependent on the draw of the cards, kids learn that they have the same odds as grownups to win the game. The ability to compete on equal footing gives my daughter a sense of importance that she doesn’t demonstrate when playing other games (like checkers, for instance) where she recognizes she is overmatched.

Candy Land is one of the few games that kids can play by themselves, without needing assistance to count numbers on dice, and without developing a strategy. They learn lessons like taking turns, identifying colors, and following rules.

All these factors lead to Lesson 6: For marathon runners, winning is secondary. We participate in the sport for what it teaches us about ourselves.

Princess Lolly's descriptions of the ideal children - courageous and determined - are also required of marathoners in order to succeed. Many novice runners don’t know their own capacity for these two elements until they pin on a bib number and embark on the 26.2-mile test.

Finally, Lesson 7: Just like in running, there’s no certainty about the Candy Land game. I don’t rig our contests so that my daughter wins, because I want her to learn how to handle disappointment graciously in addition to winning joyfully.

In a marathon, you never know what the miles will bring. Some days will be great. Others will be tremendously disappointing. Either way, you have to process it and move on to the next game, the next race, the next stage of life.

So, it turns out there are some things to be learned by this game after all.

Very soon my daughter will grow out of playing Candy Land, and she’ll move on to other challenges. She’ll navigate other Peppermint Stick Forests, and scale other Gumdrop Mountains as she journeys towards her castles in the sky.

When she does, perhaps she’ll retain some memory of the mornings spent on our living room floor, and carry some of the lessons of Candy Land along with her. And hopefully they’ll serve her well at some point along the way.


Wil 12/1/05, 9:10 AM  

Wow. This put some things together for me today. We have that game as well, and now I can't wait to play it tonight with our kids. Thanks.

Ben, aka BadBen 12/2/05, 12:38 PM  

Interesting thoughts.
Keep on running!

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