Like any good therapist, youth worker or faith leader who works with kids, my bookshelves are lined with the usual how-to ring binders and manuals on working with children in groups and managing challenging situations. I’ve even looked at some of them, too! But sometimes something else is called for, something that they don’t teach in grad school and as such defies applied theory and the so-called best practices. Instead, I offer this, a story that celebrates a spontaneous moment of play.
Recently as one of our children’s support groups was getting under way, the phone rang and my assistant was calling in sick. And there I was with five, pulsing, vacation bound and rambunctious little boys looking for what came next. Sensing that my routine bag of tricks wasn’t going to fly this time, I had to come up with something else and fast.
I got out some heavy-duty rope (no, it’s not what you’re thinking!) and strung it over open doors, through an inner office window and crisscrossed the big room back again and anchored the two-inch thick rope over a high shelf and tied it off around the leg of a beefy old couch. Next, I spread out a giant multicolored play parachute over the web of roping, tossed in a pile of pillows, throw blankets and small tarps under the chute and told the boys to have at it.
It was like Christmas. The yammering and rough-housing among the boys stopped completely. There was silence. Enough silence, I fact, that I needed to peek underneath to make sure that they hadn’t crawled out the window and left the building entirely! But it was better than that. Within seconds the boys launched into full throttle fantasy. First came the lightning fast ‘planning stage’ with each boy talking as fast and as loud as possible, clearly intending to out-decibel and overpower anyone else’s suggestions. (They’re boys, remember? Besides, I’ve been to public meetings like this.) After a moment of rapid fire let’s do this or that, Eli says, “I got it! Let’s make little rooms to hide in and fight off the aliens.” Perfect.
After a few more minutes, and hell-bent on covering our topic within our place space I said, “Just leave room enough in there so we can have our group discussion, okay? “Okay,” says Julian, “we’ll make a living room big enough for you, Kevin!” Within seconds blankets were strung, tarps were stretched and tied with string here and there. Even a chair was dragged underneath for the old guy to sit in what had become a little condo of blankets, tarps and ropes under a brightly colored play chute for a roof.
The voice of reality (the downer) from the outside says, “Two more minutes before I crawl in so we have time for our discussion before parents arrive, okay?”
“No,” says Jacob. “We’re sleeping now. Please be quiet.” Great, I thought to myself. So I quietly made my way in on all fours, dragging my topic materials along as I crept. I sat there in my little living room chair, neither seeing nor hearing any boys at all. (How often does that happen?) Curious, I lifted the edge of one of the blanket walls and peered underneath and saw three boys lying on their backs, shoulder to shoulder under a blanket with ear to ear grins trying their hardest pretending to be fast asleep.
“Okay, one more minute and everyone out of bed and into living room,” I said. And one by one out they came, and quietly I might add, and sat down in our little circle to cover this week’s topic if only to check it off as done, knowing full well that the real lesson and takeaway had become the spirit of play of the moment.
Before we all crawled out of our little make-believe world I asked, “Should we leave this up for parents to see when they arrive, or take it down now?” Two replied saying let’s leave it up. But another boy said, “No. This is our special secret place. The parents won’t understand. When they come we’ll just have to put on our hats and coats and leave. Let’s keep it secret and take it down now so we can do it again next week.
Text and photos by K. Lee