Time to Play

As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school.  I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun.  Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging.  I try hard, though.  I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating.  However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan.  My plan was PLAY! 

The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends.  This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children.  I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now.  The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY.  Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked.  I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric.  They buzzed with ideas. I smiled.  That’s just what I hoped would happen.

The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play.  I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive.  I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow.  I had them hooked.  When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas.  I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play.  It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.

For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating.  They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects.  I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom.  They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.

At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials.  Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems.  I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just  observe and document their progress.

Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic.  The children are moving and talking constantly.  They are building and dismantling, and building again.  This is the process of creation.  It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.

Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.

It renews our natural sense of optimism

and opens us up to new possibilities.

– Stuart Brown, MD

SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:

Baby Ravens Play

Kids Need Recess by Simon Link

Play is a Fundamental Human Right

Play is Important! by Brody Gray

When Huskies Meet a Wild Polar Bear

World’s Youngest Olympian: Skateboarder Sky Brown

The Silver Lining

I have been teaching for over four decades.  That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another.  I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy.  I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to.  I push that thought away, and I focus on the children.  This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls.  They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills.  Now it’s May.  They are tired and distracted, and so am I.  I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome.  This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions.  A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you.  I know this year has been hard learning like this.  So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play.  You all will get to create something that shows why play is important.  It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine.  The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions.  It took some a while to believe that I was serious.  That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.

Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students.  I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play.  I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning.  I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play.  I couldn’t wait for my first class. 

Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day.  I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess.  I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom.  That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow.  That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated.  And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate.  I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation.  I pressed all types of buttons.  Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud.  Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions.  I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.”  This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year.  They returned to their seats.  The got a little quieter.  I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually.  This is not what I had planned.  My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little.  I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls.  Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix.  “Open the water.  Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up.  I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.”  I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.”  So, I did.  I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked.  But alas, it was too late to view as a class.  The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing.  I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea.  My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay.  Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.

Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy.  That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play.  If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever.  When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.

This is the project the girls will be working on for the next few weeks. I’ll keep you posted!

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

In his latest post, “A Crowd of Me,” Mario Perron writes about the process of beginning a new painting:

Staring at the big (30″ x 30″), white canvas is often the most stressful part of my process. How do I start? Where do I start? That very first mark is so important to me that I find myself in a battle against my fears and insecurities. A multitude of voices clamour for dominance in my head… It’s the same every time! I hear the light-speed and intensely elaborate debate between overthought and instinct, then my hand rises to the canvas and the first mark is there. When I let my mind go, the entire image starts to come into view in my imaginations and muscle-memory does the rest for guiding my hands.

This got me thinking of my own process of creating. I think a blank anything whether it is a canvas, paper, or piece of cloth – gives the artist a moment to ponder and stress.  Something about the purity of the whiteness maybe. We don’t want to put something down that is wrong, ugly, or unintended.  We want the marks, whether words, a painted image, or a quilted line, to be beautiful and meaningful and what we envisioned in our minds in the first place. With writing, the blank page is not so daunting to me.  I create ideas in my head for a good long time, I let them percolate, and then I start placing them on the page.  I’ve been doing this for about sixty years, so with practice comes familiarity and a kind of easy flow.  With canvas or cloth, I am more hesitant.  These I’ve done sporadically over the years; these hold more anxiety for me.  It’s harder to undo a stitch or a painted line.  Typing can be easily deleted, no one will ever know those awkward, ugly, simplistic words were ever there.  But the painted or stitched line is harder to remove.  There is evidence of my lack of ability permanently cast.  So I wonder how to get beyond that.  Abstraction and collage help.  Making abstract images helps free my mind and in doing so it frees my hand.  I don’t worry as much about perfection. I can just flow with the rhythm of what I’m feeling in that moment.

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

Abstraction helps me get in touch with the child inside.  The young child, who hasn’t yet been touched by judgement.  Peter Reynold’s picture book, The Dot, addresses this idea of self-judgement.  In the story a young girl faces desire, hesitation, and ultimate success in making her artistic mark on the world. It’s a wonderful book about creativity and being brave making your mark.  When I do creativity exercises with children, I change the blank paper into a paper with a dot or mark or hole in it.  The paper already has an “imperfection.” Now they don’t have to worry about the first mark, it is already there.  I challenge them to take that mark and use their imagination to create a design, image, or story.  Young children don’t hesitate – they take up the challenge and just draw.  Another activity I’ve done with students after reading Reynold’s book is to have them work together to create a mural using colorful self-sticking dots and.  It is wonderful to see that there was a time we didn’t self-edit.

Start with a dot and then freely explore.
Composing with Dots

I often take an art mistake and incorporate it into a collage.  A couple of months ago, I began dabbling again with watercolors.  What was in my mind did not translate to the page.  I was disappointed.  I looked at the work again and decided I loved the colors, but not the image, so I cut the image into strips and woven them together into two squares.  I liked how the watercolor was transformed and put it a way to use in a collage.  This week, I took a twelve-inch square canvas, painted an undercoat of lemon yellow, yellow ochre, and vermillion.  After that layer dried, I added a coat of green (a mixture of white, sap green and viridian).  While that coat was still wet, I drew on top of that layer with rubber shaping tools creating a design of swirls and dots. I let my hand move freely and added bits of flourish as I saw fit. I let that layer dry and then placed my collage objects: the two woven watercolor squares and six wooden hand-painted buttons.  I spent some time assembling and dissembling until I like the composition. Then I will permanently attach the pieces by sewing the into place of the canvas.

Process of Making Garden Trellis

Instead of focusing on purity, I focus on possibility.  It’s not important to me if the strips are the same width or that the weaving is not perfectly straight.  To me, these imperfections make the work more interesting. What is beyond the canvas, page, cloth that I can imagine into being?  How can I express what I’m thinking and feeling?  How can I connect?

Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination

Twenty Books and More that Join Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon Creative Tradition:

  1. A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
  2. Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  3. Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
  4. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
  5. David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
  6. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  7. How to by Julie Morstad
  8. Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
  9. Journey by Aaron Becker
  10. Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
  11. Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
  12. Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
  13. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  14. Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  15. Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  16. Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
  17. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  18. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
  19. What if? by Samantha Berger
  20. Windblown by Edouard Mancea