Earlier this month I was invited to give a lecture about playing with objects at the University of Denver. The class I worked with is called “Theatre Imagination” and is full of students from the theatre department and across campus who are looking to fulfill an arts credit. While there were a few performers in the group, the rest of the class was made up of people who don’t regularly interact with each other through a performative lens. They are engineers and designers and college kids finding their way. They may spend their college experience playing in some ways (!) but not in the free-wheeling, open-ended, material-driven way that I was lucky enough to experience with them.
I told them I would be sharing a performative lecture — I did the lecturing and the students did the performing. We spent two hours together with plastic sea creatures, building paper costumes and falling in love with objects and dancing and giving ourselves the gift of collective joy. We laughed and cried and waved goodbye to objects as they became our friends and partners and collaborators. At the end of our time together, we found ourselves in a circle looking to process those moments of wild play.
Looking back on the afternoon, I’m struck by one student’s reflection: “I can’t remember the last time I was able to play like that. It reminded me of being a small child. We were playing like children. So many things so quickly. I didn’t have time to think. I lost track of myself.” How often do I get to lose track of myself? How often do I get to play like a child with many ideas and things moving quickly through my experience?
Luckily, I get to do both of these things every day at school. More importantly, the children here do too. I believe that it is not enough to talk about the practice of free-wheeling, open-ended, material-driven play — I believe we should celebrate it. So this morning, I took a walk through our classrooms to see what worlds of play were being created.
Sometimes play is driven by circumstance and framed by specific materials. In our Hollyhock classroom I found children creating a snowy day collage/sculpture on this blustery morning. “This is a snowy day in Kansas City,” one student told me as they rubbed soapstone on black paper.
Other times, play is driven by imaginative, re-framing of objects. I noticed a child in the Lily classroom turning plastic tubes into muscles and a superhero physique. “I have super muscles now!” one student hollered before jumping into a run around the rug.
Still, other times play seems to have no connection to reality as we know it. In the Iris classroom I spotted collaborating with tweezers and tiny puff balls at the light table to fill small plastic tubes. When I asked what they were up to, they said they were “playing family”.
Then my blog writing was interrupted by a call over the radio from our Hollyhock classroom. “Come outside! Bring the camera!” they chirped. Sabrina and I walked out to the playground to find kids and grown-ups jumping and rolling and laughing and celebrating snow together.
In each of these moments, children and grown-ups were collaborating to play fully and without reservation. It’s play as celebration of the whole child in their whole environment. It’s the way we want to welcome each morning at school — open to the possibility of playing with many things quickly and hoping for the chance to get lost in a material-driven experience.