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.

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.