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.

Seeds of Change

“What after all has maintained the human race on this old world despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities and courage to advocate them.” – Jane Addams

“We need to spread the word,” B exclaimed, clearly feeling passionate about the content of our group. We had just spent the last several minutes of the morning exploring endangered animals and discovering together the different things that were impacting the creatures we all so dearly loved. As you might expect with a group of young children, the emotions were high as I moved through a collection of some of our most treasured animals telling them more about their status on the endangered species list. This experience had certainly struck a chord with them, shifting their perspective and opening their eyes to the sad realities that accompany many of these creatures.

Being part of this group while also sharing that deep love for animals, I could easily relate to the emotions the children were feeling. Each “oh no” I heard from the children at the discovery of a new endangered species and every sigh of relief for those that were not on the list, echoed my own thoughts and feelings perfectly. In this moment with the children I felt completely connected, each of us sharing a common interest and concern for all the living things we share our world with.

But it wasn’t until B shared his thoughts that I suddenly realized the difference between the children and I. Where I was focused on researching and knowing the experience of these animals, the children wanted to change it.

Immediately after B expressed his concerns a chorus of voices started to rise up from our group, sharing ideas about all the ways we could make B’s vision so.

“We could make a newspaper!”

“Yeah! We can tell people don’t cut down trees.”

“If they need to cut them they can just trim them!”

“We can say don’t hunt animals!”

“We can let them know about all the animals that are endangered!”

“We need to protect the rhinos!”

“We can make signs!”

What I had seen as an opportunity to reflect on new information had quickly transformed into a call to action, inspired by the deep level of empathy at each of these children’s core. Together the children and I, over the next several days, worked to create signs, posters and even a “newspaper” detailing (and often times demanding) the changes we wanted to see. We shared ideas and new possibilities, and as we did I felt a collective fire start to grow. A fire that I had a feeling would continue to burn even as we welcomed the final days of our school year.

It seemed only fitting then that after a few weeks of this work with the children, that I would head directly into a conference at Opal School in Portland focused on “change making” and our role in creating environments where that process can take place. Not knowing what to expect from the conference before I left, it felt so serendipitous to walk into a space designed to nurture and inspire those seeds of change that my children and I had spent the last few weeks planting.

I listened to the speakers over the next few days as they so eloquently described their experiences working with children of various ages who delved deep into complex works of perspective taking, empathy, and inquiry. In awe of the work being done by these children, I could feel that fire inside me (the one my children had started) warm my heart and awaken my mind.

Imagining my own children as I continued to walk through the classrooms of Opal and listen to their teachers stories, I thought about how so many of them had started to crack open deep and meaningful topics like this. I wondered what might come next for them. I thought about the heart that had driven them up to that point and how closely it resembled the heart that made up the essence of every one of these stories. The heart that made up the essence of what it means to be a change maker. I thought about everything the children at my school, at Opal, and in the world had done and what they might continue to work toward. I wondered….

What kind of world is grown when children believe they have the power to change it?

A Mother’s Love

“We are born of love; love is our mother.” – Rumi

Standing right next to our big wooden swing in the backyard I watched as F slowly rocked back and forth, her head hanging down in sadness. She had been sitting with these feelings for a while now after saying goodbye to her mom early that morning. Like all the other mornings before, this one had been hard and I could feel that sadness still weighing down on her.

Seeing her in that moment it was hard not to feel drawn to her, the strings of my heart pulling me closer and closer until I was right there leaning in, asking about all the emotions moving through her in that moment. With tears in her eyes she looked up at me and opened up about how much she missed her grandma and how sad she was that she wasn’t at her house.

Remembering what her mom and dad had told me about the time she spent with her grandma before coming to school with us, my own memories came flooding back reminding me of a time when I am sure I would have felt the same. Seeing a connection that the two of us shared, I told her about my own grandma and the special moments we had on a swing very similar to the one she was rocking on now.

Her eyes now shining through her tears, a small smile appeared as she shared with me that her and her grandma would sit together on a swing like that too. Together the two of reminisced about our grandmas and the way they would help us sleep by tickling our backs, how they would sing us songs and tell us stories, and how much love we felt from them when our moms were not around to give theirs. Together the two of us bonded over the love that we shared for people we knew who weren’t our mothers but who cared for and loved us as though they were.

Looking back on this moment a couple years later and thinking about all the other people I know who share stories similar to ours, I realize how special relationships like these are to children and the adults they will later become. For me this love that I got not just from my grandma but so many other incredible “motherly figures” in my life (including my actual mother) is what helped me to feel confident in myself and my dreams; what gave me strength when things in my life felt hard, and what inspired me to be a more loving person myself. Having those incredible people in my life is what made me who I am today and for that I am forever grateful.

So when you think about the people to celebrate on days like today, remember its not just the ones who share your DNA that deserve that appreciation but all the people who inspired you, who shaped you, who guided you, and who loved you. Because being a mother, father, etc. doesn’t necessarily mean sharing blood. It means making memories, doing things to show you care and being someone people can count on. It is through those deeper relationships with the people in our lives that our image of mothers, fathers, etc. are opened to mean so much more. Having those relationships is what helps us grow into people who are able to give that same kind of love ourselves. The kind of love that creates more adults like ones that inspired and guided us.