Sometimes, people ask me why I work with children. I struggle with finding an articulate answer. Working with children is so much ingrained in my identity that I feel like if I didn’t work with children, I wouldn’t be myself.
I am inspired by young children because I, too, have an internal drive to play. Play is how children grow. Through play, children learn almost everything they need to know, from how to solve social problems, to how to participate in their cultural practices. Playing literally builds the brain. As a teacher, I am constantly finding ways to guide their play to be as powerful and positive as it can be.
I believe in the strength of play because I have lived it, and I am living it still. Throughout my whole life, I have relied on play to teach me, support me, and engage me. Of course, the ways I’ve played have changed, but my devotion to it has not.
At this stage in my life, my strongest form of play is contra dancing. This is something I first picked up as a hobby in college. Even during my first night of dancing, I knew that this would be a great way for me to play. I felt immediately present in my body. Time no longer mattered, I was in the moment.
I do not dance with the intention of becoming the best dancer ever, and then stopping. I dance for the experience. Yet, just like a young child spending hours building with blocks, I learn valuable skills without even realizing it. Contra has taught me skills that I use in every context of my life. I have become more physically coordinated. I have learned how to connect and respond to another person. Dancing has taught me how to communicate through non-verbal cues, and how to establish boundaries. And the beautiful thing is that I am not done learning these things and more. Because, I am not done dancing.
I have also found that dancing is the best thing for my mental health. When I am dancing with good people to good music, I can almost instantaneously feel my stress levels decreasing. My self-confidence rises, and my spirit soars. I know that everyone feels better after a strong bout of play, I have seen it in my classroom, and I have felt it while dancing. Even though I know I cannot (or rather should not) dance forever, after I have had a nourishing dance experience, I am able to return to my work with a renewed strength of spirit.
I am writing this post from a huge dance festival, called DanceFlurry. On the drive up here, I was a tad anxious. I was still carrying some of the stress from a long week of teaching and studying. I had never been to this festival before, so I was feeling nervous about the novelty. But, in the short span of time it took me to walk from the entrance to the check-in table, I ran into nine different people that I knew and deeply loved. Nine of my playmates. This bond of community continued as I walked onto the dance floor. As we held hands in long lines, I knew that these were my people, ready to play with me. And ready to support me, even when I make mistakes.
This is the way I like my classroom to be. Children walk in, sometimes carrying the stress of their home life. Immediately they are greeted by their friends who tell them (through words, expressions, or gestures), “I love you for who you are. Let’s play.” New relationships are built quickly and easily. Children learn how to adapt their interaction to accommodate to a new play style, just like I change my dancing to adapt to my partner. Children are pushed within their ability to develop skills they can take with them for the rest of their lives. But really, they are caught up in the thrill of play.
I know that as I grow, my way of playing might change. And that’s OK. Because the beauty of play is that it is not defined by what you are doing. It is defined by your state of mind, guided by where you need to grow. And for right now, I need to dance. I need to teach. I need to play. It’s who I am.
-“‘Can I just ask you, Billy, what does it feel like when you’re dancing?’…’I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are. And at the same time, something makes you whole.” -Billy Elliot the Musical