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David Wetherow: Two Circle Games

April 30, 2013


Jean-PierreHalletThanks to David Wetherow for permission to share this with us. For more work by David and Faye, please check out their site.  
Recently, while surfing the Web, I came across a beautiful picture of twenty-one African children sitting in a circle with all of their bare feet touching at the center (you can find the picture at

When I first saw the photo, I thought, “This would be a wonderful image to show when we’re talking about building Circles.” At least I thought that until I read the story that accompanied the picture:

“Pygmy kids begin the Osani game by sitting in a circle, feet touching, all connected. Each child in turn names a round object like the sun (oi), the moon (tiba), a star (bibi) an eye (ue) and then goes on to name a figurative expression of “round” like the circle of the family, togetherness, a baby in the womb, or the cycle of the moon. As players fail to come up with a term that is “circular” they are eliminated from the game. Eventually, only one remains. Tradition has it that this player will live a long and prosperous life.”


I found it quite sad that this beautiful image came from a game that ultimately excluded everyone, including the ‘winner’ – because in the end, even the winner is alone.

One of the biggest challenges we face when we’re building Circles of Support or working on Microboards and other creative social networks is that we have all had the same deep conditioning in competition and ‘independence’. The Osani Circle Game reminds us about those first hidden, gut-level lessons that we learned about school, work, and relationships. Our ‘skill sets’, ‘personalities’ and the way we see the world are anchored in assumptions that are so deep that we’re no longer consciously aware of them.

It helps to remember that we’ve been conditioned to compete, dominate, ‘tough it out’, and ultimately to do it alone. We’ve all been taught that as soon as we ‘get it wrong’ we’re unworthy and that there’s something shameful about trying to get back into the game. Even team games (where we’re supposed to learn to cooperate) are ultimately deeply competitive. We even compete to be cheerleaders.

This ‘works’ if we’re the toughest kid in the class, but what does it mean when we reach a point in our lives when we need other people? We discover that we’ve been ‘handicapped’ at Circle-building because we never learned to do it as kids, it’s not part of the larger culture, and there are almost no examples that show us how to do it or show other people how to play.

This peculiar handicap shows up on ‘Day One’, when a child is identified as having a disability. Parents don’t know how to ask friends and extended family members to be ‘on purpose’ in an enduring way about their child and family. Actually, they don’t even know that it’s going to be important. And friends and extended family members feel that they ‘don’t know what to do or say’, so they drift out of the picture.

Early intervention and education programs focus on ‘fixing’ the child, or ‘finding a place’, and point the family squarely in the direction of the service system as the source for resources and solutions. It turns out that the service system itself is a competitive field where one child’s needs are pitted against the needs of other children, one ‘type’ of disability is pitted against other disabilities, and the whole topic is pitted against competing political interests and ‘the failing economy’.

So it’s no wonder that families get isolated early in the game and later (perhaps when they’re trying to form a Circle of Support or a Microboard) they feel that there’s no one they can call on. It’s no wonder that older families are staggered by the question of ‘who’s going to look after my son or daughter after I’m gone?’ And it’s no wonder that generations of men and women with disabilities experience isolation and loneliness.

The story of the Osani Circle Game reminded me of playing Musical Chairs when we were kids. Musical Chairs is another game that ends up turning all players but one into ‘losers’ and bringing out the worst in the ‘winner’. We all know the rules, we’ve all learned our place’ and all of us carry those lessons into our adult lives.

But Robert Fulghum, author of Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten, found a way of turning Musical Chairs into a creative, joyful, connection-building game. After having his students play the game in the regular way, Fulghum added one rule change.  Play Musical Chairs as before, but this time, if you don’t have a chair, you sit down in someone’s lap.  Everyone stays in the game – it’s only a matter of where you sit.

As the game continues, and more and more people must share one chair, a kind of gymnastic dance form develops. It becomes a group accomplishment to get everybody branched out onto knees. Students with organizational skills come to the fore – it’s a people puzzle to solve now – “Big people on the bottom first – put your arms around him – sit back – easy, easy.”

When there is one chair left, the class laughs and shouts in delight as they all manage to use one chair for support now that they know the weight can be evenly distributed. Almost always, if they tumble over, they’d get up and try again until everyone was sitting down. A triumphant moment for all, teacher included.

Fulghum’s story changed minds, hearts, relationships and possibilities by making one simple rule change in a child’s game. He revealed the poverty of the way we learned to play Musical Chairs (and Musical Life) and revealed the richness of doing it another way.

Judith Snow’s work on building Circles of Support, Bartel and Neufeldt’s work on Supportive Care in the Congregation, PLAN Canada’s work on creating social networks, and our own shared work in building Microboards and Star Raft Circles are revolutionary acts – changing minds, hearts, relationships and possibilities. The work is creating a new understanding, new skills, and concrete examples that demonstrate the richness and the possibility of a different way.


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