A few weeks ago, in an "adventure playground" that couldn't have a better name, I witnessed a story evolving.
There were three boys who had found a den made in between bushes. They saw the many drawings sellotaped to the branches all inside it and the oldest boy declared: "It's the girls' den. We have to take over it." He showed the two younger boys how to make weapons made of a bunch of stinging nettles stabbed onto the end of a stick. They carefully went inside the girls' den and rubbed their stinging nettles against the floor, the bushes and the drawings. They told me they were "infecting" the place.
The two girls, 7, stood watching from far away. They looked to me as if they were debating whether to fight for their den or surrender. When the boys retreated to a nearby hide to watch the girls, they timidly approached the bushes where their den was built. They went inside it and looked around, not daring to touch anything after seeing the boys "infecting" their belongings. Suddenly the boys popped out from their hide, yelling "go away! It's our den!" while brandishing their stinging nettles weapons and threatening to hurt them if they didn't leave. The girls looked scared while they were running for their lives as the boys chased them. The girls didn't come back. The boys made drawings of their own which soon replaced the girls's.
I am fascinated by children's play. I am amazed at their capacity at leaving the real world for a while to deeply enter their own. Even though the boys and the girls were enemies in the scene I have related, they were also accomplices as the girls pretended to believe that their den was infected. Even the boys knew that stinging nettles cannot "infect" a place, since they entered it themselves after the girls surrendered. They all knew it was fake, but they all kept on playing, as seriously as ever.
The drawings the girls first hung in the den struck me as "mark makers", as signatures to indicate whose den it is. The boys picked that up quicker than I did and ended up replacing them with their own.
The two younger boys were happy to let the older one command, and it may have been this organised hierarchy that led to their victory. The girls did not have a commander, they were both debating what to do and approached "timidly", without a clear action plan. Their unconfident attitude gave away to the boys, even before they had started the attack, that they would be victorious, probably adding to their already high self-confidence.
Play definitely is a serious matter that allows children to rehearse skills needed in adult life. I am very grateful for being able to witness such scenes almost every day of my life.