Don’t Forget to Play

“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.

Hey Tough Guy

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” – Sigmund Freud

Hey tough guy, you say you don’t cry?

But when your mom leaves without giving you a hug,

I still see that water well up in your eyes.

Hey tough guy, you say you don’t care?

But the way your body shakes when you are worrying about your friends,

It seems like you do.

Hey tough guy, you say you don’t need help?

But I remember you crying out for help when you fell and scraped your knee,

You needed me to know.

Hey tough guy, you say you don’t need anyone?

But when you grip my hand that tight when we talk,

I feel like you don’t want me to go.

Hey tough guy, you say you are okay?

But when you cross your arms and turn away

It looks like there’s still more you need to say.

Hey tough guy, you say you aren’t scared?

But when you hide your feelings aren’t you scared of being vulnerable?

Hey tough guy, you say you are strong?

But would you still feel strong if you took off that mask of masculinity?

Hey tough guy, you say that these things make you weak?

But does avoiding them really make you feel stronger?

Hey tough guy, I know the world has a lot to say.

They put the burden all on you.

They say you have to be brave.

And to keep everything inside, even if you don’t want to.

Hey tough guy, I know they tell you “you’re okay”.

They want you to brush it off, be a man, put up those walls.

The world has put too much pressure on you.

To be something that isn’t real, that isn’t natural

Hey tough guy, I know people will tell you to be a certain way

And it won’t be easy to tell them no.

But I am here to remind you…

That it’s okay to be sad, scared, angry, and worried too.

Even the toughest guys have emotions.

That it’s okay to open up to people.

Even the toughest guys have to let it out sometimes.

That it’s okay to have challenges.

Even the toughest guys have to overcome difficult things in their lives.

That it’s okay to be honest about who you are and what you feel.

Even the toughest guys aren’t tough all the time.

So release the burdens of the world,

Let those walls they’ve created fall down.

Speak from your heart.

And be true to yourself.

Because tough guy,

The thing I love about you most

is that you are so much more than just a tough guy.

It’s Who You Are

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” – Fredrich Nietzsche

If I asked you right now to tell me about yourself, how do you think you would respond? Would you tell me about your job, your family, your home, your appearance? Or would you think to dive deeper into the depths of your heart and answer me with what you are feeling, what you are thinking, your beliefs, your hopes, your dreams.

When you ask children questions about who they are their answers are often so much deeper than what we would expect. Where we might have an easier time sharing the things that lie on the surface, the things that people can discover simply by scrolling through our Instagrams and Facebooks, for children its what they feel inside that seems to speak to them most. They share what they think and what they feel. They share their happiest moments and their biggest disappoints. They share about what they love, what they hope, and what they need. Just in giving children the same few questions we might give to an adult, for some reason we can learn so much more.

So why is it that children are so much more willing to open themselves up to others? What makes them so capable of showing who they truly are to the world?

In working with children one of my greatest joys has been to see the way that they embrace who they are so fully and honestly everyday. In my time as a teacher there has yet to be a day where I don’t see a child running around in their underwear with dirt smeared across their chest or a child crawling on all fours meowing or attempting to lick their friend holding an imaginary leash. In fact, I don’t think I could count on both hands the amount of times I’ve had to tell a child “It might not work to be a cat, dog, goat (etc.) right now.”

Every day I come to work I am inspired by these children because in spite of how odd we may see these things through our adult eyes, or how surprising we may think it is to see a child hiding under a table with their underwear on their head, the still embrace that beauty of childhood-the permission to be who you want, when you want, regardless of what anyone else things about it.

When I watch children live this truth I am always in awe at the confidence they display and unwavering faith in embracing all the things that connect to their souls. They lean in to life and in doing so live in the most authentic way. But at the same time there’s also this sense of envy that creeps in as my nostalgia reminds me of what it was like to be that carefree, unburdened by the stress and responsibility that so often plagues our adults lives. As I watch the children embracing themselves I start to miss the days when I too could live that way.

But why can’t we still live life this way? What keeps us as adults from living as openly and wholeheartedly as children do?

Once I let my nostalgia pass and ground myself back into reality it’s easy to start to understand why this is. Ideally it would be incredible to be able to live so carefree, unafraid of judgement or criticism, comfortable in our own skin. And while running around in your underwear may be pushing it (although some people may argue that even that’s still okay), why can’t we still embody the same confidence that children at my school display from the minute they walk through our doors?

Unfortunately the answer to that I think is one we are all familiar with, and one that likely poses many barriers to our own authenticity; societies expectations of us. One thing that I realize that stops me when I start to imagine myself letting go and embracing life the way children often do, is the image that might create for me in the context of society as a whole. I mean if we think about it, its much harder to be out-of-the-ordinary when we are constantly being fed the idea that we need to fit into a certain type of mold. Through society, social media, advertising, (etc.) this idea is being reinforced that there is one way act, one way to be, one way to live. And how much harder is it to take risks, open up, and be yourself in a world that tells you people will judge you for that.

We are adults, we are professionals, we are parents, teachers, and on an on. All of these labels being used against us as reasons why not instead of a foundation upon which we are encouraged to figure out how to.

But how do we change this image and make space for ourselves to live with that same freedom?

The great Beyonce once said, “Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.” This is the beauty of what children have and what we as adults need. It’s not necessarily about changing other people’s image of you, its about not waiting for permission. It’s embracing who you are in the moment regardless of the pushback you may get. It’s about finding the best possible spaces, people, and outlets for you to express that person inside of you. Its about you channeling the confidence and self-love of your inner child and allowing yourself to be a little “weird” in pursuit of being you. It’s about simply being yourself, always, and never apologizing. Because it is who you are and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

To All the Sensitive Children…

To all the sensitive children, I see you. When you cry out in sadness, anger and frustration, I see you. When your face turns red and hot, your eyes start filling with tears, and your voice shakes, I still see you.

I see you because I was you. A child who wore their heart on their sleeve and who felt things deep in their soul. A child who sometimes cried for no reason, who couldn’t always explain what I was feeling and why. A child who was told “you’re fine” more than “it’s okay to cry.”

I was like you, but we were a little different. Because unlike you I was not as strong and fearless. In fact, I was not nearly as comfortable with my emotions as you are now. I watch you express yourself and wonder what would have happened if I had done the same; if I had been free and open with my emotions even when people told me not to be. I wish I had embraced my emotions the way you do. I wish I had realized that being sensitive was a gift rather than a burden.

While it can be loud and at times unrelenting, it is also powerful. That emotion inside of you is what will connect you to yourself and to others; it is what will help you open your mind. Through feeling that emotion you will move closer to mastering empathy, love and compassion. Through that emotion you will model for other people (adults and children) that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.

When I see you expressing those things deep inside I think about how much I wish I had done the same. Instead of letting my emotions flow, I questioned the meaning of my tears. I allowed others to define what I was feeling and when I was allowed to feel that way. Instead of using my voice and speaking my truth, I pushed it deep inside and held those feelings tight.

I wasn’t brave like you then. I let my fear of what other people would say or do get in the way of being who I truly am. I let the pressure of other voices prevent me from embracing my true self.

But when I look at you now I see it, that strength, reflected back to me. Through you I see why it’s okay to cry and why we all must sit with our emotions from time to time. Through you I see that these feelings each of us has, the ones that are so raw when we are young and so often subdued when we grow older, are actually beautiful and necessary parts of this life.

So the next time you cry don’t listen to the people who tell you not to. Don’t let anyone quiet your voice out of their own discomfort. And next time you need to yell out to the world yell with purpose because soon you will need that voice to fight for what you believe in and to remind others that they too can express themselves freely and openly. Next time someone says you are “too sensitive” or “too emotional,” just remember there is no such thing. Because you are a deeply feeling person and that is something you can’t and shouldn’t change.

And as you grow and realize that there are people struggling with their emotions, with that expression that comes so naturally to you, remember that you have the power to help them find their voice. So when you meet those people throughout your journey embrace them, let them know you see them too. Remind them that you’ve been there, that we all have, because feeling is human.

Expectation vs. Reality

“The field of creativity that exists within each individual is freed by moving out of ideas of wrong-doing or right-doing.” – Angeles Arrien

“I made a juice box,” J said as he shared with the class his memories of our time together. I giggled at his response and the reactions of the people around who were clearly very curious and confused about how this related to the mural project he had been asked about.

Just the day before in our team meeting I had shared with my co-teachers my plan to create a mural with the children that depicted some of the things they wish could be part of our outside community. I remember very passionately describing some of the visions I already had for what ideas the children would share, the discussion we could have about connecting our ideas, and the deep meaning this mural would hold for the children and our school. The vision, for that moment at least, was bright and beautiful in my mind.

Still sitting with J and the rest of the children, I laughed a little more when other children from my group excitedly shared that they made a juice box too. Memories of our whole group started to flood my mind. I could still see them all sitting so focused on the floor, inspired not by my words but by what seemed like such a random and silly idea from one of their peers. A room full of juice boxes; who would’ve thought that’s where our planning would go.

The question I had asked them was what they thought a community mural might be about, and what we wanted our mural to do for the people seeing it. We had talked just minutes before about some of the murals around Long Beach and how murals like those could make people laugh, feel happy, remember something important, or see something beautiful. Naturally I expected the children to follow my lead on this and start to share similar intentions for their own mural, but working with children is always full of surprises.

At first I was met with “bring people together” a beautiful sentiment that was right on track with what I had hoped for the group. Feeling a little giddy that they had picked up on things so quick I asked the next child to share their idea. “Flamingos!” she exclaimed, clearly passionate about this original vision. “Princesses!” said another child before I could even call her, and “Batman!” yelled another. My face started to scrunch as I thought about how I could possibly shift things back to the intention and vision I had entered the space with. Then another child shared, “Whales. It should be about whales!”

Remembering this moment I almost laughed out loud. Our ideas had moved so far from my original vision to the point where I just had to accept defeat, pass out paper and pens, and let the children’s ideas flow. I had tried a couple times to bring us back to the original question I had in mind but we were already in too deep with their ideas about animals, swirls, and the infamous juice boxes to return. I was forced, as much as tried to fight it, to let things go and to completely follow the lead of the children.

But was that a bad thing?

Sitting on the rug with my group, I looked around at all the children’s faces and smiled as they looked at me with joy in their eyes. It’s was a different joy than I think I had imagined we’d feel but it was joy nonetheless. Just seconds before when my co-teacher asked all the children how they felt about the plans they had done, my heart skipped as everyone in my group put a thumbs up some of them even putting two. They had enjoyed the plan we had done, they had enjoyed their time together, and they enjoyed collaborating even if it was in their own way.

As I reflected on the reality of this plan, and how different it was from my expectation, I realized that the joy these children felt was really what was important. In coming to this plan with my own vision, I almost missed a perfect opportunity not just to let the children be children but also to enjoy that feeling with them. If they had allowed me to do this I realize I would have missed all their quirky ideas, the passion in their voices, and the closeness that I felt between us as we worked and laughed together.

Looking back I am so happy that my expectation wasn’t our reality. It is easy to want to put those expectations on to children (in more ways than one), especially as adults. We have a lot of our own ideas, usually accompanied by a need for control or predictability, but what does that really mean for the children? When I took a step back to look at this process and what it would have done to their children’s flow I realized that our experience would have looked less engaging and a lot less genuine.

Because the children were too passionate about their ideas to let me sway them, they had created something that was about their vision instead of my own. They had explored their imagination, sparked each other’s curiosity, and inspired each other in the most wonderful ways. They had formed ideas that were completely out of the box and started to build an idea that was unlike any I had ever seen before.

So what does that mean for us moving forward?

Well, what I can guarantee as we move forward is that the vision we follow will be one created through all of our ideas and passions. It will be created through laughter, through challenges, and hopefully through joy. But most importantly, it will be one that is uniquely ours; a mural that comes from the children because that is what its about, the children…and juice boxes too, of course.