As a child I got bored very easily. This wasn’t helped by the fact that my little sister managed to occupy herself perfectly well for weeks on end and often was more interested in books than in keeping me entertained. If she relented and spent some time with me, competing in Garden Olympics with bamboo canes, or playing Captain & Cook on the bunkbeds, this invariably ended up in a messy and often violent argument. She claims I once hit her over the head with a cricket bat. I don’t remember this. However, I couldn’t really blame her for preferring her own company. After completing all the logic problem books and tiring my granny out by doing gymnastics on her sofa and I’d finally be forced up to my bedroom to get creative.
Now for most of my childhood Dad was the headteacher of a secondary school in Cambridge. Sometimes, this was exciting. When visiting the school, we would play with the traffic light door entry system in Dad’s office. You were only allowed to enter if the light was green. The master switch, located on his desk, felt as all-powerful as the US Nuclear Football. We would take it in turns to play the headteacher and the child who was being called in to be reprimanded. Sometimes Dad being a headteacher was embarrassing. Driving down Mill Road one Saturday morning Dad spotted two of his pupils throwing firecrackers into the road. Much to our chagrin, he wound down the window and bellowed, “My office. 9 o’clock. Monday Morning.” There was one time in the year when Dad brought his work very noticeably into the family home. For two solid weeks, Dad would take over the family dining room, which became completely out of bounds. This was the normal route from the main house through to the Granny flat (literally my Granny’s flat). During these two weeks Dad made us visit Granny via the garden. Only when it was raining hard would Dad let us go through the dining room and then only accompanied. The reason for the caution was that this was Timetabling Fortnight. A giant magnetic Sasco board would be propped up against the largest wall – taking up most of the space. Around the room were tiny magnetic strips of many different colours, a rainbow pens and lots of piles of paper. If a child so much as moved one magnet by half a centimetre, it could disrupt the entire timetable for a secondary school of 900 pupils and put the process back by several days. Dad didn’t trust anyone else to do this job properly. It was a one-person job and he was the man to do it. He would go to ground, surfacing only for the kettle and food. We were told not even to knock on the door in case it disrupted a complex thought process. So it was with great trepidation that I would sneak into Timetable HQ in the dead of night. I would be careful not to touch anything but instead just kneel beneath the board gazing up – like a shrine to logical thinking… and for me it was a semi-religious experience.
This is why, when squirrelled away in my room with nobody to entertain me, I would turn to the world of timetabling. I would gather my cuddly toys around me and put them into classes. I’d make careful note of the subjects each class needed to be taught and the teachers (me usually or sometimes a toy of particular superiority) that could lead these classes. Then I’d set to work on the timetable. Out would come the coloured pens and piles of paper, though I sadly never got a giant sasco board. I’d post a sign on the door that said ‘TIMETABLING! Do not disturb’ in giant letters. After several hours, when the timetable was done, I would make a seating plan and prepare the classroom. I’d half-heartedly begin teaching, with an inanimate class I was somewhat restricted to a didactic style, but I’d quickly lose enthusiasm. To keep it interesting I’d invent a major event which would require a complete re-timetable. A flood in one of the classrooms meant a space restriction, so some classes had to be taught together. When the history teacher, a large bear called Chocky, broke his leg, history classes had to be reassigned to Odina, a cloth kits patchwork doll, who also taught PE due to her amazing flexibility. The unexpected addition of The Green Cross Code to the curriculum actually required a restructure of the school day.
I was surprised to learn, in my forties, that this wasn’t a completely normal childhood activity. Not normal perhaps, but great preparation for creating board games and solving puzzles. If only I’d worked out that I could channel this logical creativity into designing games when I was 8, instead of constructing timetables for toys, I might have a host of award-winning super games under my belt by now. Fortunately, age is no barrier to game design. It doesn’t matter if you start designing at 7 or 77.