Monday, March 27, 2017


"It's a party, okay?"

"Yeah, we need a cake."

"I'm the polar bear baby. She's kind of shy about the party."

"Oh, that's okay polar bear baby you can come with us."

"What if a ghost comes to the party?"

"Hey, we need a light for the party!"

"Let's pretend it's this guy's birthday, okay?"

Many years ago, my three-year-old friend Sylvia taught me to call it "playing a story." In this case they were using our classroom Duplos, each of them taking an avatar or two in hand, joining the circle. Sometimes newcomers ask something like, "What are you doing?" which leads to a hasty summary of where the story stands, but usually they just drop to their knees and listen for awhile until they have enough of the gist to join in.

I've always viewed these types of games as a kind of every day miracle. Only a few months ago, this would have been nearly impossible for most of these three and four year olds, to sit down together like this, to not be tempted by the urge to destroy, but rather to gather around on our bellies and knees and negotiate a story together. They may strongly assert the parts of the story that are about themselves like, "I'm the dinosaur!" but when it comes to the shared parts, their sentences tend to turn into questions and invitations as they look for agreement and participation from the rest of the kids.

It's from games like this that children begin to learn what they are going to need to be truly successful in life, which is to say, the skills and habits necessary to be productive, participating members of a community. Too often, there is an adult at the center of the games children play in school, directing, making rules, guiding, and even scolding, but it's only when the grown-ups shut up and get out of the way that the kids can really dig into the real work they need to do. 

I love few things more than being a fly on the wall as they strive to create their story world together, making assertions, then tagging an "okay?" at the end, creating space for the others to agree, alter or disagree; inviting others with sentences that begin with "Let's pretend . . ."; moving their bodies to accommodate one more person; talking to one another through the characters they hold in their hands, often dealing with important social and emotional issues; arguing productively (as opposed to combatively) when ideas clash, both sides willing to yield a little or a lot in the interest of keeping the story going.

These are the skills and habits they will use throughout life. This kind of play directly reflects what most of us spend our lives doing: coming together with other people around some shared challenge or interest or opportunity, putting our heads together, then creating the community or team that we want or need to get things done. It's as true in business as it is in the arts as it is in our neighborhoods. Indeed, this is, at bottom, what democracy itself is supposed to be about: people of goodwill coming together to figure things out.

What encourages me is that it is a universal thing. I see it everywhere children are freely playing together. Of course there are conflicts, but if we adults can manage to keep ourselves out of it for a few moments longer than is typical, the children, through the community they have created are often quite capable of handling it themselves.

"Hey! Don't take that! This is our party!"

"Yeah, we're using that!

"No, stomping dinosaurs!"

They may not always be as polite, but they are often far more effective than adults who so often come in and "fix" things.

"I wasn't taking it, I was just moving it over to here because my horse needed a chair."

"Oh, I'll put it back."

"The dinosaur just wants to stomp around the party, okay?"

There is nothing more important for humans than learning about life through playing stories like this. Some assert that our great evolutionary advantage is our big brains or our opposable thumbs or something like that, but the truth is that our biggest adaptive advantage is that we are hyper-social animals, using language and mathematics and all sorts of complex systems, forever making ourselves more and more reliant upon one another. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to live as members of a community that determines whether we thrive or struggle as a species. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to sit around the fire playing stories.

When children play like this, they are not just learning about the complex interplay between individual needs and those of the community, but, if we allow them, they are also teaching us how it's done. The answers are all there if we would only listen.

"Let's . . ."


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