It seems that the 'floor is lava' game (game is to not touch the floor, the children must get around by climbing on furniture instead) is developed by most children.

My question is how it is so many children know this exact same game.

One argument would be that it is learned socially like many other children's games - for example 'Enny meeny miny moe' is another commonplace game - that is clearly learned, rather than developed independently.

On the other hand, it could be that 'the floor is lava' is a product of innate play (like play fighting, or running around) and easy imagination.

Is there any research on how this game is developed/learned by children?

  • The floor isn't lava! It's crocodile-infested waters. Crocodiles that go SNAP with their jaws (arms).
    – A E
    Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 12:24
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    On a more serious note, the definitive reference works here in the UK for the history of children's games, songs and folklore are the Opie books opieproject.group.shef.ac.uk/works-by.html I'd suggest you start with: Iona &Peter Opie, 1969. Children's Games in Street and Playground. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 12:27
  • While child psychology is vastly more complicated, it is possible that this ultimately stems from an emergent behavior to avoid potential obstacles, as recreated in autonomous robots. Such games also help kids train their balance and agility. Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 19:27

3 Answers 3


There are a collection of games that are ground-orientated, e.g. not stepping on the floor, not stepping on cracks, walking on rocks or cobbles, etc. There is likely some evolutionary element at play here as humans are very much a ground-orientated species; while we have some capability climbing trees and swimming in water, we are natively ground-dwellers.

As such, once we have a grasp of the art of walking and running on regular, safe surfaces in a normal manner, we then move on to games around unsafe traversal. Naturally, unsafe floor is far better imagined than real, although kids are known for accidents while deliberately balancing or climbing over uneven terrain. Socializing an imagined danger is part of playing such a game together.


I can't talk about research - but I can say that my own eldest child appeared to develop "don't step on the cracks" type games naturally and spontaneously while we were out and about in town. It would be reasonable to expect that interaction with the environment would yield games like this without need for any direction or input.

Conversely the name 'Lava' does suggest that parts of the game are not entirely innate; it's beyond improbable that they would have encountered molten lava or even have the idea of what lava is without being introduced to it.

In the same way that the cracks in the pavement harbour bears and water might be crocodile infested despite neither being native to our country there appears to be a correlation between learned dangers (often those of fiction) is mixed with the innate play to ensure that all involved are aware that the danger is imaginary.

TL;DR the physical game is likely to be innate but the role play associated is highly unlikely to be.

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    This answer doesn't address the question, which is specifically asking for research.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 16:35
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    +1 - This is an interesting answer which does not argue with the premise. Studies on "the lava game" are not likely to exist or be easily found. I agree with @James Snell that children are highly unlikely to play this game without knowledge of lava, but pretending the floor is alligator/crocodile infested waters? Common. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 17:25
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    @Joe - Thanks for your feedback. To quote the question... "My question is how it is so many children know this exact same game." which is the part which has been covered here. You are, of course, welcome to submit your own answer with more information and providing details on research and I'll be happy to upvote it if warranted. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 20:25
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    The game is generally "don't touch the floor" until someone else suggests lava. I personally enjoyed in being hot cocoa, because in the Choco stages of Super Mario Land on SNES, the lava was replaced with hot chocolate, which killed you.
    – user11394
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 4:45
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    Oh, I was just meaning to share, not critique, really. It's a fun game, and kids are prone to climbing.
    – user11394
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 13:57

I played this game as a child. Only the floor was water, and it had alligators in it (I'm from the South). We would play this game on rainy days or when playing outside wasn't permissible at the time. My brother came up with this game, as I recall, and I'm the imaginative one in the family. So, I would have to say that a little cartoon-watching inspiration and perhaps good ole' fashioned boredom, and then comes the gator-infested water or lava floor. My kids have played this game as well, and I didn't teach it to them.

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