Duck, Duck, Goose

A brief examination of the classic children’s game

In my recent weekend trip to Virginia, my boyfriend’s family and I spent a Saturday afternoon at Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir playing cards and various board games. It had unfortunately rained the entire time we were there (hence the games), though we ended up having a lovely day under a wooden roof on an open patio. The evening was filled with fun competition and memorable moments of bonding. There were, however, a few party-crashers…

A group of ducks unabashedly joined our company for the evening. They stayed very close to us the entire time, likely hoping to catch any crumbs that fell from our snack containers, though it was obvious they were already quite familiar and friendly with people, regardless of their appetite.

There were two ducks who initially showed up that looked like a pair of twins, both being a dilapidated brown color with soft red webbing around their eyes. Soon enough, two more joined: one was a large, pure white breed and the other was a smaller, classic mallard. All of them were simply adorable.

The four Virginia ducks that joined us for our outing. (August 2020)

This friendly paddling of ducks were like rays of sunshine on this wet day. Naturally, being an animal lover, I took several pictures of this quartet, and when I reviewed the photos later that evening, I was funnily reminded of the classic game “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Although at first I thought nothing of the memory of this childhood activity, I soon began to ponder on just what this game is truly about…

As a refresher of how the game works (or if, by chance, you aren’t familiar with it), a group of people sit in a circle facing inward while one person, who is “it,” walks around outside of this group. The “it” person, as they go around the circle, taps each sitting player’s head or shoulder, and says aloud “duck” each time time they do so. Being the picker, the “it” person is the one who chooses who the “goose” will be, and once they do, upon approaching that person, they must tap them on the head or shoulder and shout, “Goose!” The “it” person must then run from the chosen “goose” around the circle and sit back down in the “goose’s” now empty spot before the “goose” can tag them. If the “it” person manages to sit in the empty spot before the “goose” tags them, the chosen “goose” is the new “it” person, and the process repeats. If the “goose” ends up tagging the “it” person before they sit down in the empty spot, the initial “it” person remains “it,” and must begin the round again.

What makes this game fun is suspense: the “it” person may go around the circle as many times as they like, and those who are sitting never know if they will be a “duck” or “goose” next. The more times the “it” person goes around the circle, the more the players feel the suspense. Additionally, running away from the “goose” can actually be quite tricky for the “it” person, especially when there is a large circle with many people. Essentially, the bigger the circle, the more length there is to run, the greater the chance for the “goose” to tag whoever is “it.”

The first pair of ducks that approached us at Beaverdam Swamp. They followed us from the moment we parked our car. (August 2020)

So what is so interesting about “Duck, Duck, Goose?” Firstly, each player that makes up the circle could be called, un-ironically, a sitting duck. Second, in a funny sort of way, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is a mind game. Not only that, it’s a mind game that exercises motor skills. There are several variations of this game that add another layer to the basic version I described. Some people, for example, know the game as “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.” This version becomes further complicated in that, instead of shouting “goose!” when someone is chosen to chase the “it” person, one shouts phrases that sound very similar to “gray duck,” such as “graze duck” or “great duck.” This really keeps players on their toes, as their ears now need to be keenly attuned to when the “it” person truly shouts “gray duck!”

So what does this game exactly teach? Besides physical ability, it also teaches attention skills, and some basic logic. Thus, this activity is quite crucial for children’s development since it can help refine attention systems, which, as this article from the NCBI explains, begins forming very early in kids.

At around 6 months of age, the anterior attention system reaches functional onset and infants begin the drawn out process of developing inhibitory control and higher order attentional control (i.e., executive attention). Not only do infants have better voluntary control over their visual fixations, they can now inhibit attention to distractors and maintain attention for more prolonged periods when it is called for.

Most children, however, usually begin playing “Duck, Duck, Goose” when in Kindergarten or preschool. Nonetheless, attention is an important element and cognitive ability needed for this game. Furthermore, this activity also teaches lessons about patience. Kids learn how and when to take turns in “Duck, Duck Goose,” only being allowed to run when called on. Oddly enough, the game’s inherent suspense (that comes with potentially being the next “goose”) entices children to exercise their listening skills and wait for their shining moment as “goose.”

More than meets the eye, it appears, with this childhood classic; it’s a perfect package of lessons in developmental growth, simple though exhilarating fun, and downright silliness suited for people of all ages. Perhaps the next time you encounter a duck (or a goose!), you may thank the bird for being a sort of “mascot” of a timeless game that enhances foundational social, motor, and cognitive functioning.

Four ducks scavenging for any leftover crumbs, or perhaps getting ready to play a round of “Duck, Duck, Goose”! (August 2020)

Julia Collucci writes big thoughts about the things she sees on her walks in both local neighborhoods and far-away places. Follow her Medium account Little Walks, Big Thoughts to read more of her articles.

Julia writes big thoughts about the things she sees on her walks in both local neighborhoods & far-away places. Instagram: