“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” – Charles E Schaefer
“Hey Kelsie! Should we gather all the friends for a story?”
It was one of the first greetings I got as entered the backyard our first day of summer. I looked down to see T with his arms and legs spread out very much like a runner does while preparing for the start of a race. I could feel his eagerness as he froze in place, awaiting my signal before he jetted off to collect all the children that might like to join him and I in one of our favorite forms of play.
I had spent many mornings and afternoons that year before sharing stories with the children in the backyard. Together a group of children and I would gather at the stage or in any shady spot we could find to create new tales of magic, monsters, danger, and surprise twists. Sometimes we would tell stories we knew from books we had read, or those we had learned from other incredible storytellers like Bev Bos and Pete Seeger. Other times the children would request “true stories” about things that had happened in my life, diving into all the surprises, scares, and excitement I could remember from these special moments.
But most of the time it was the stories that were unique to us, the ones that we created, that captured the attention of the biggest groups. It was in these stories where all our ideas came to life. Where the children’s interests and intrigue led to the creation of whole new worlds. Where their words and ideas laid out our path and many times changed those we had already ventured on. These were the stories where the children and I would truly play together as we developed our fantasy. These were the stories that invited the connection and collaboration that I knew T was so excited for.
Of course T was always part of these groups listening intently with the other children, and enthusiastically sharing ideas any time there seemed to be a space where those ideas could be invited in. Like many of the other children storytelling was a medium through which he came to life and where he could easily transport all of us into that fantasy world and invite all of us into his play. And just like T and the other children, this is exactly what storytelling was for me.
When T approached me that first day of summer, I felt my heart swell at the mention of my stories. Those moments where I shared stories with the children had been the highlight of that year for me and the place where I felt most connected to them. In those moments I could feel myself come to life, my ideas flow, and my ability to listen and embrace the children reach its highest point. It was in those moments where I felt I was at my best as a teacher and where I could refuel my passion and confidence in myself even on days when I was swimming in so much self-doubt.
But what made these moments so crucial to my experience and development as a teacher? How did telling stories with the children actually help me grow?
The answer to that I think is best described by Vivian Gussin Paley, another storytelling advocate, in this quote from her book A Child’s Work…
“…why not call play the work of teachers as well? If, as Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, informs us, children rise above their average behavior in play, let us pursue the ways in which their teachers might follow them up the ladder.”
For me these stories were my door into my own version of the children’s play. They gave me a means through which I could be creative myself, explore my ideas, and challenge what I knew. But even more importantly they gave me a tool through which I could connect and explore the relationships I had with the children, creating a foundation through which I could approach them more naturally and playfully, with an ease of mind that comes only when we are deeply immersed in play.
Just like children we as adults still need play to help us rise above our own expectations. In play the boundaries and hesitations that hold us back from so many things start to melt away and we begin to embrace all the gifts and natural tendencies that live inside of us. The problem is as we grow older we are encouraged to release that playful nature and take on a more professional one. In any job you enter, even when you work with children, you are most likely given a list of things you must do or you must wear to create that professional persona. But what would happen if we gave ourselves moments where we could release that? What if we allowed ourselves to be playful in our work, or possibly even playful with each other?
The ice-breakers of many staff meetings I think speak to this well, since most of those include some element of play. If play was not essential to breaking down those walls, why is it that so many of these tools we use for that purpose include it? Why do we use it so often to help us connect and break through our own vulnerabilities? As much as we, our workplace, and society might say that play is not necessary in the lives of adults, it clearly is. And while it may not take the same form as telling stories to children, there is some element of play that can be added to all of our lives.
Considering that idea ask yourself, when do you feel the most playful?
Whether you are a teacher, parent, artist, business person, or entrepreneur there is a form of play out there that speaks to you. Something that can reconnect you to that child inside and open up the endless possibilities and potential that we often see when we look at things through a child’s eyes. So embrace that magic that lives in play and dance, tell stories, play games, and share jokes with others and yourself. Because it is through these moments, where we embrace all of who we are and what brings us joy, without questions or societal limitations, that the best work can really be done.