The Thesaurus– My new favorite toy

My intention for this weekend was to begin writing some of my application essays for graduate school.  However, due to the unusual presence of caffeine in my possession, my brain appears to have taken a vacation from its usual focus and drive, so my essay draft looks more like an explosion of thoughts.  Ultimately, I think I unveiled something that will provide some meaningful insight that I can put into my essays.

For now, I’m embracing my brain divergence.  I hope to be writing about the importance of play in my life.  I will address its personal meaning as a child, as an adult, as a teacher, and as a peacemaker.  Right now, I’m gathering basic information about play, others’ experiences of play, memories of my own play, research about play. I’m taking time to sit with each thought,  weighing the ultimate meaning and my own reaction.  It’s turning into therapeutic introspection. 

 Without expecting to find much, I pulled up the thesaurus and typed in playful.  I have a feeling that most people do not find a greater meaning in thesaurus results, but I found this experience enlightening.  What struck me most was the antonyms.  Some of them can be combated with some healthy play, some of them make space for a different kind of play.  Words like apathetic, depressed, dispirited, inactive, lifeless embody the hurt and struggle that is so present in the world.  It’s normal to have these experiences. When hurtful thing happen, it’s important to slow down and grieve.  Play is there to pick you back up.

When I watch my children playing, I can see where their work counterbalances these emotions.  Whatever the play scenario, they are fully engaged.  Their spirit oozes from every pore of their play.  Their emotions are genuine, their thought process obvious.  This week we turned our dramatic play center into a waste management facility, so our children could explore what it feels like to be a garbage collector.  My children loved putting on hard hats, work gloves, and safety vests as they repeatedly filled and emptied garbage cans, called their boss on the phone, and worked on the “computer.”  I took a picture of one of my girls hard at work.  She was wearing a yellow hard hat, holding a phone between her ear and her shoulder, and typing on the computer keyboard.  There was such a look of focus on her face.  Her play was full of investment, full of spirit, and fully of life.  She was far away from a world of apathy.

The other antonyms that stood out for me were the words with slightly less of a negative connotation:  behaved, serious, working. These traits do not automatically exclude play.  As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes play needs to be loud and big.  Sometimes I need to realize that my “shhhh”s and “please clean that up” are useless and futile.  I need to release my notions of control and appropriate behavior, and just let the play spiral into merriment.

Other times, we need to play seriously.  We need times to process our dispirit.  Play provides a safe space to do so.  I’m reminded of the book Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.  The story follows a young boy who is withdrawn from life.  His teachers are concerned, and his mother has given up on him.  He begins play therapy, where in his own serious way, he grapples with the meaning of what he knows about the world.  By the end of the book, he is able to find flourish in his life.  His play therapist provided him the safe space to invest in his own work.  He is not one of the squealing, effervescent players that I know all too well. He is struggling, he is breaking down.  But, he is still playing.

I think it’s time to start playing with those antonyms.  Losing spirit is part of the life process.  Sometimes even the best players feels apathetic.  I wonder what would happen if we established the space to play with what’s troubling us.  I think this would involve two things.  The first, an antonym space.  A safe space to play in our own way.  To work through what it means to have dysfunctional relationships, to introspect, and to be OK with dwelling in our hurt.  The second is exposure to those synonyms.  To at least watch, if not participate, in exuberance.  To remind ourselves that there are people out there who are rich with the creative spirit.  And to hope that we, too, can catch the spirit. 

Looking for a place to start?  Read over the synonyms for playful and for play.  I can’t help but smile when I read word like frolic, rejoice, vivacious, and lighthearted.  I laughed when I noticed that the very first synonym for play is dance. At this point in my life,  I am dancing constantly.  I contra dance at least once a week.  I dance with my children daily.  I dance while I’m cleaning my bathroom.  It’s my most meaningful form of play.  I’m not going to stop dancing. I’m not going to stop playing.  Even when it’s hard.

– “Perhaps there is more understanding and beauty in life when the glaring sunlight is softened by the patterns of shadows”  – Virginia Axline, Dibs in Search of Self

Quiet Things

One of the reason I love children is that sometimes when they are so excited, they can’t contain it.  Sometimes, children just have to squeal, sing, yell, scream.  They need the world to know their extremes.  Children are loud.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But, there is something really special to be said for those other moments. 

One such moment happened yesterday, completely unplanned.  During lunch, we noticed that a bird was visiting the birdfeeder right outside our window.  My children watched in awe as it landed in the feeder, picked up a few seeds, and then flew away.  It did this over and over. 

After a while, I suggested that we open the door to our porch and figure out if we could hear these birds.  As soon as I opened the door, the room became quiet.  Like, naptime-after-a-hike silent.  The children continued to eat their lunch, but had somehow found a way to harness their inner-stealth.  It was clear that their focus was completely on the external. We only heard one bird tweet.  But, that didn’t matter.  These children understood that there was something extraordinary out there.

A guest speaker in one of my college courses told us once, “If you ever need children to be quiet, involve an animal.”  I just have to smile at how true I have found those words to be.  Last year, my coteacher brought in her daughter’s guinea pigs to visit our boisterous, often rambunctious group of children. When instructing them on how to handle the guinea pigs, these children listened and followed the directions in a way I had never seen before.  After the morning of playing with the guinea pigs, we put the pigs in the closet and sent the children outside.  When they came in from the playground, we told them, “the guinea pigs are trying to rest.” Just like with my current class and the birds, these children found a quietness in themselves that I had never seen.

So, what’s this about?  Why can the presence of animals transform the atmosphere of a classroom like nothing else?  I wonder if they see themselves in the animals.   I wonder if they are remembering what it feels like to be something small, unfamiliar, and vulnerable.  They know what it is like to be surrounded by loud and large people.  They know what it is like to be scared.  They understand that in new situations, it is crucial that the environment feels calm, quiet, and still.

I wonder if this is an expression of power for my children.  Not the kind of power that can lead to aggression.  But that power that’s in the still, small voice in the story of Elijah.  The kind of power that comes from stillness.  The power that many grown-ups only find after years of a strict meditation practice.  Maybe these children understand that when they quiet themselves, they open up room for new experiences, a way to connect with the world at large. 

Whatever the reason, these experiences are really special.  For all of us:  the children, the teachers, the animals.  I am constantly humbled in my expectations.  When I proposed opening the door yesterday, I never thought this reaction was possible.  But, in fact it was so powerful for the children that one of them asked me, “Can we keep the door open so we can hear the birds during naptime?” 

I strongly believe that our world needs loudness.  We need drum sets, fire trucks, and belly laughs.  We need the energy of a child so excited that all she can do is scream.  But there are those moments when the absence of those loud things can fuel the soul in new ways.  There is power in those quiet times.  Our children know it.  It’s my time to fall back in love with the quiet.

– “At quiet times, young children give us glances of some things that are eternal.” -Mr. Rogers (quoted in Letters to a Young Teacher, by Jonathan Kozol)