Announce that all interactions in the game will look and sound similar to what is about to happen between you and your partner.
To demonstrate, turn to the person on your left, show the soft toy in your hand and say:
You – “THIS IS A WHAT.”
Partner – “A WHAT?”
You – “THIS IS A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO” (or another nonsensical name.)
Now, encourage your partner to take the toy and say with great delight “AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
Next, guide your partner to turn to the person on their left and repeat the process by saying “THIS IS A WHAT.”
This time, when their partner responds with “A WHAT?” your partner (the person still holding the toy) must resist the temptation to reply and instead, turns to their right-hand partner (you) and repeats this question (“A WHAT?”) to you.
You say “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
Your partner repeats this to their left-hand partner, who will respond with a delighted “AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
In short, every time a new person is introduced to the game and responds with “A WHAT?” this question is passed from person to person between the one holding the toy until it reaches you.
In response, your answer of “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO” is passed from person to person until the newest person receives it in delight.
This sequence of responses and passing of soft toys continues all the way around the circle until the person on your right finally engages with you by announcing “THIS IS A WHAT.”
To conclude, you take the toy and say “INDEED IT IS.”
How To Play Narrative
Oooh, I love this game so much. I expect you and your groups will too.
The instructions can seem a little daunting at first, but stick with ’em – they are simple once you get the hang of it.
Start by forming a circle with about 12 to (no more than) 20 people, possibly sitting, but standing works too. Armed with one of your favourite soft toys in hand, include yourself in the circle.
In my experience, I have found greater success by announcing that the interaction that my group is about to witness between me and my partner will form the basis for all interactions from this point forward, with just one exception (and that comes later.) This will pique their interest and, hopefully, memory banks, too.
Turn to your left-hand neighbour and state quite plainly “THIS IS A WHAT” while showing off the soft toy in your hand.
Then, guide your partner to respond by saying a little incredulously, “A WHAT?”
You then reply with something even more incredulous, something like “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.” The name is irrelevant, but make it fun to say.
With a little encouragement, ask your partner to receive the toy and say with great delight as if the penny just dropped “… AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
Or, in short-hand, the exchange looks like this:
You – “THIS IS A WHAT.”
Partner – “A WHAT?”
You – “THIS IS A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO”
Partner – “AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO!”
Hopefully, having absorbed this set of simple exchanges, your group can move to the next step as part of your efforts to work your way around the entire circle.
Ask your partner to turn to their left-hand neighbour and repeat the process (see above,) but…
Immediately after the new person responds with their incredulous “A WHAT?” question, (you) interrupt this exchange and instruct your partner (the one with the toy) to resist the urge to answer it and instead, direct the question to the person on their right, … you.
That is, the new person says “A WHAT?” and then the person still holding the soft toy turns to you and asks “A WHAT?” as if they have forgotten the answer and then you respond with “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
In short, every time a new partner responds with “A WHAT?” this question is passed between the person holding the toy one at a time until it reaches you. You respond with a matter-of-fact “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO” and your partner turns to their partner and repeats this to them.
Finally, the newest person in this chain of events exclaims “AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO!” before turning to their left-hand neighbour (who has not been involved until now) to repeat the process anew.
Pulling all of this together, this sequence of exchanges may sound like this:
Partner 1 – “THIS IS A WHAT”
Partner 2 – “A WHAT?”
Partner 1 – “A WHAT?” (directed to you)
You – “A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
Partner 1 – A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO.”
Partner 2 – AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO!”
Partner 2 to Partner 3 – “THIS IS A WHAT.” (directed to Partner 3)
Got it? Hopefully, we’ll have a Video Tutorial to demonstrate this process with a real live group soon.
Jumping ahead a little, by the time this sequence of interactions reaches halfway around the circle, you will be witnessing and hearing a lot of “A WHAT?s” and “MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO’s” back and forth between you and whoever happens to be holding the toy.
This sequence of responses and passing of soft toys continues all the way around the circle until the person on your right finally turns to you and says “THIS IS A WHAT?”
You could ask “A WHAT?” in return (thereby setting in action a series of exchanges back and forth around the circle) but in most cases a simple “INDEED IT IS” is suffice and everyone will release a huge sigh of relief.
Practical Leadership Tips
The flourish of exclaiming in delight “AHHH, A MERRY MILKY MOO-MOO!” really does help to punctuate the never-ending series of “A WHATs.”
Don’t make your circles too big (ie more than 20 people) lest it gets a bit boring for many people just waiting their turn.
Conjoining several tongue-twisting words together to form a name makes the game all the more hilarious to watch and be a part of. For the record, the moniker Merry Milky Moo-Moo was the name of one of my favourite cow beanie-babies that were all the rage in the 1990s. My other two go-go beanie toys are a Furry Friendly Frog and a Plush Purple Platypus.
Quite honestly, I do not often present this game all the way to “the end,” ie where every person has received the toy for the first time. I make a judgement call about the level of enthusiasm of my group – together with the potential for confusion and/or boredom – and announce a halt to proceedings when I think the fun has reached a crescendo.
You could integrate A What? as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviours effectively in different situations and to achieve goals.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
There is no specific health & wellness perspective to this activity other than promoting the benefits to one’s wellbeing of enjoying a good laugh.
In a small way, you could argue that the effort required to successfully keep on top of what is going on may speak to the benefits of being adaptable because one’s role changes so frequently and quickly. It could be possible to connect this skill of adaptability to other areas of our lives that require the same level of focus and agility.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which A What? could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Both Directions: Soon after you set in motion the series of exchanges travelling to your left, initiate a new sequence with a second soft toy to your right. Obviously, it will need a unique name so as to distinguish it from the existing clockwise sequence. Your hardest job will be to remember which name to give when the frequent questions of “A WHAT?” arrive from both directions. Take a particular interest in what happens when the two sequences of exchanges moving in different directions overlap one another.
Extra Challenge: Swap out the name(s) of your soft toys with a selection of non-definitive words, such as WHICH and WHO? For example, it may sound like “THIS IS A WHICH” – “A WHAT?” – “A WHAT? – “A WHAT?” “A WHICH” – “A WHICH” – “A WHICH” – “AHHH, A WHICH.” Confused yet?
Change It Up: Instruct each person that as they are passing the toy, they are entitled to change it to a different object thereby heightening one’s listening skills. This version introduces an improvisational option which can be very fun, especially if you add a description of how it should be passed, eg gently, juggling, very heavy, etc.
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Useful Framing Ideas
If you feel that you have a strong command of the English language, this next challenge will truly test your skills…
Do you sometimes confuse your left hand with your right hand? If this sounds like you, then you are well-advised to concentrate really hard in this next activity…
On paper, this next activity is confusing enough, but just wait until you start playing…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this outrageously fun group game:
What sorts of feelings did you experience during this exercise?
Was the game fun? What made it fun to be a part of?
Why do you think we laughed at others when they made a mistake? Was this cruel?
What was the most challenging part of the exercise?
What helped you to keep track of what you needed to do and when?
The inspiration for A What? was sourced from my friend and colleague Jim Schoel who first presented this game to me when I was an intern with Project Adventure. To this day, it continues to sit somewhere in my Top 60 activities.