The floor is lava

You probably know the game called “the floor is lava”, where players must traverse space without touching the ground. Although it is a kids’ game, it is also popular among parkour practitioners, who use different obstacles, ledges, walls or rails to avoid touching the “lava”. Here, I will argue that this game is a great example of a “naive” version of the constraints-led approach. Different versions of the game might exist, so we will start discussing an unstructured case and then examine how different variations can be used to achieve learning goals.

A non-prescriptive game #

If we observe a few kids playing the floor is lava, it might at first seem like a case of unguided exploration. They jump, climb, crawl, run or vault everywhere. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong solution, no particular technique is rehearsed, and different paths can be taken. But there is at least one rule: whatever they do, they can’t touch the ground. And usually, there is an objective, like trying to get from one point of the environment to another. So although the game is not very prescriptive (there’s not a lot of precise instructions), it is still goal-oriented and we would be mistaken to describe it as a case of totally unguided exploration.

The game is better thought of as a kind of problem-solving task: I know what to do, but I have to find out how to do it. It fosters exploration, trial and error, adaptability. We can even go as far as to say that it would require creativity: when I’m stuck somewhere, I’m forced to think out of the box in order to keep going. At the very least, I’ll need to observe the environment attentively, and find new affordances: is it possible to jump there ? can I find an asperity in the wall that my fingers can get a hold of ? or maybe there is a ledge I can use to hang from ?

A game structured by constraints #

With the CLA, we can understand how different constraints structure this process of exploration, and canalize the resulting movement solutions.

The task constraints are the rules and objectives of the game. Kids will usually self-regulate: they decide where to start and where to stop, what are the rules, what counts as “the ground”, etc. They don’t necessarily discuss and negotiate all the details. So although the general frame might be set to be the same for every player (this is where we start, this is where we want to go, and this is the lava we don’t want to touch), there might be a lot left open to interpretation. This leaves some space for the individualisation of the challenge. Some might use all means necessary, but often players will set additional task constraints for themselves, like avoiding an obvious foothold, or restricting the use of hands for balance or momentum for a jump. Players of different skill levels can therefore attempt the “same” challenge, while still facing a challenge of the appropriate level. What happens quite often is that once they’ve accomplished the challenge in “easy mode”, players will try again with added constraints (“let’s try it without using this wall”, etc.).

Better not fall in that lava...

The environmental constraints will depend on where they’re playing: indoors, on a playground, in the streets, on trees… They depend on the context too: are they playing alone or with friends ? Is the ground dry or is it raining ? Are they playing at night or is there enough light ? These constraints will afford some movement solutions, like balancing on a rail to cross a gap. On the flip side, they remove some movement solutions: walking through a wall is impossible, and jumping over it without momentum is too risky, etc.

We should always think of the environmental constraints together with the individual constraints. The individual constraints will also ensure that some actions are possible or impossible, easy or hard, attractive or not. For example, a tall or flexible practitioner might be able to reach a certain ledge that others cannot, and a not-so-confident player might prefer progressing slowly and avoiding paths that require jumping. Because the game does not prescribe the movement solutions that need to be used, it leaves space for individual solutions, tailored to everyone’s individual constraints. There is no “one size fits all” solution, what is efficient for me might not be the best solution for you.

Using constraints for learning #

Now we’ve seen why “the floor is lava” works so well in unregulated situations, and that we’ve shown how we can see it as a constraints-based game, there’s still a few elements to discuss. After all, the constraints-led approach does not consist in adding random constraints to any kind of teaching situation. What we want is to use constraints in a systematic way to achieve learning goals. The floor is lava is a fun game that can be used as such, but a teacher can also use it with the intention of improving specific skills.

The first thing you would want to do is choose a situation that provides the right affordances and opportunities for action. You want your learners to improve their jumps ? Choose a course that requires them to jump. You want them to improve their vaults ? Pick a setting with a lot of walls to vault over. Usually you will not need to tell them what to practice, because they need to use those techniques to get to point B. Sometimes they will surprise you, coming up with solutions you didn’t expect them to use. That’s pretty cool, it means they are smart and are using all the opportunities that their bodies and the environment provide. As we have shown, the floor is lava is a great game to develop higher order skills like creativity and adaptation. And because it can be played in complex and realistic environments, the players learn to interact with and move efficiently through these spaces, which is a useful life skill.

But if you really want them to train specific techniques, you can always add constraints to guide them to these solutions. Here are some ideas:

  • Add an imposed point of passage, a chokepoint.
  • The challenge has to be done multiple times, but each path can be used only once.
  • Add a few techniques (one jump, a kong, etc.) that need to be used during the challenge, but they can choose where they use them.
  • Restrict the number of steps or jumps they can use.
  • Restrict the use of a hand or a foot

And of course, you can always alternate a floor is lava situation with a bit of more traditional teaching, were you focus their attention on a specific technique they might not be aware of, and then get them to try that on the lava challenge. It might be especially useful with beginners, who otherwise could feel lost without any guidance or repertoire of techniques.

If you’re not sure if all players will be able to achieve the challenge, there are a few things you can do. One of them is to allow collaboration, where players can help each other in the most difficult parts. Another would be to organise it like a video game: all players have x number of lives. If they put a foot in the lava, they lose a life. The goal is to get to point B without losing any lives, but if there is a really difficult passage they can always put one foot down to skip it, which allows a more flexible challenge. On the contrary, if you have high skilled practitioners you can always add constraints like not using the left hand, or transporting an object.

Conclusion #

In this article I’ve used “the floor is lava” as an example of a constraint-based game. Considering how this game is both fun and challenging, while providing learning opportunities, we should learn from it to structure the way we teach. We should take away that although we usually should tell our learners what to do, we don’t need to tell them how to do it. We should not focus too much on instructions and feedback, but think of all the constraints that we can use to guide our learners towards skillful behavior. And we should design our learning situations to provide enough autonomy and allow the emergence of individualized and/or creative solutions.