Image Credit: intent by outlier* via Flickr Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike-Noncommercial
She speaks to me.
I suppose "buckle shoes" and Dad's reassuring hand linger nearby. She seems unaware of these things, at least for the moment. Cascading water, cool stone steps, the late afternoon's sun, and an old oak's canopy coalesce beautifully to invite her exploration. They come together naturally framing a studio of sorts, a place to play. As is often the case, the playing brings a discovery. There is now an intention to her play. A focus.
I wonder what it is she is learning?
My childhood was much like this-rich with opportunities to imagine, be curious, explore, and discover. Sometimes the discoveries were fleeting ideas, little things learned; other times they settled in, inviting me to new explorations-a chance to learn some more.
What happened to that curious child? I think Mitch Resnick may be right. We grow up quickly and forget the importance of play. Somewhere along the way we relegate play to kindergarten, and we leave it there, much too wise to entertain child's play. Thinking we have all the right answers, we stop drawing outside the lines, leave no room for trial and error. We forget that what we found through play can deepen our learning and bring us to a new understanding. It is often through play that we make meaning.
Several years ago I was vividly reminded of this value of play. For the first time in my life, I was assaulted with life events and emotions that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not understand or resolve. It was not an a + b =c situation. There was not a formula, linear model, or prior knowledge I could draw upon to find a solution. Try as I did to make the answer appear, I realized my efforts were futile. I had no answers. It was as if I had known only buckle shoes and Dad's hand; the cascading water, dancing patterns, and cool steps were overwhelming. Fear set in.
One day, a newly minted friendship--one of coffee cups and long walks--offered an unorthodox solution. I was invited once again "to play."
Sue was a licensed family counselor at the time working with both adults and children. She asked me if I had ever heard of a sand tray.
"I think it might be a way for you to get a fresh look on this situation," she suggested.
"Isn't that something like play therapy?" I asked. "It's something children do, right? Not me."
Reluctantly, I showed up at her office early the next evening. Walking into a peaceful room, I seem to recall candles glowing in the corners. In the center of the room were two bowls filled with sand, otherwise empty. Along the far wall floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowed with hundreds of small things-everything from natural items such as shells, stones, and twigs to plastic houses, people, clocks, bridges, and Smurfs. Miniature toys from nature (and the store).
My instructions were few. Sue pointed to the bowls and the shelves and suggested that while she was gone, I select whatever items "spoke to me." And, upon her return, I would be asked about each item, where I had placed it, and why.
For the first time, in a long, long time, I had been given the space and the freedom to play.
I recall pouring over the shelves, examining different items. Surprisingly, I still remember a number of the items I picked, which bowl I chose, and where each item was placed. I also remember thinking how little sense it made. The groupings seemed a menagerie of misfit strangers-no glue to hold them together. When Sue returned, however, somewhere deep within myself a voice arose to explain my "play." I began unraveling a storyline piece by piece; and though I knew the pieces intimately, they had been unknown to me "as one."
Listening intently, Sue remained silent until the very end. Finally, slowly and carefully, she spoke. Her words formed just one question. A simple, yet powerful one. At that very moment, I realized that I had been unable to find a solution for but one reason: I had not given myself the freedom to "scribble outside the lines." I had forgotten how to play. I had lost an important avenue to meaning.
Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, singles out play as one of six aptitudes necessary for success in the 21st century. In fact, he quotes:
“Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society—our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value” (Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic, p. 185, A Whole New Mind)
From my own experiences with sandtrays, technology, and marathons, to my 6th grade "researcher" and his fabrications, to our 65+ colleague and his iPad, and a spring semester senior and her powerful digital story, I can attest: play is a powerful way of learning.
The curious little girl of intent may find a permanent home on my wall tomorrow. I'm thinking she might serve as a good reminder to make time for play. After all, The Wisdom of Play means barefoot wins out over buckle shoes any day. :-)