Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Girl Who Didn't Know How to Play

A few summers back, a family moved to Seattle for the summer from Vancouver, British Columbia for the sole purpose of enrolling their five-year-old daughter Anjoli in Woodland Park's Summer Program. This sort of thing happens sometimes, because of the blog. I find it embarrassing and not necessarily in the best interest of children to commute long distances to attend preschool, especially when I know there are outstanding play-based programs closer to home. 

When I asked this father why they had left the girl's mother and older siblings to come so far just for four two-and-a-half hour sessions a week, he told me he was worried about Anjoli. "She doesn't know how to play." All of his children had attended school from the earliest age possible, schools that promised academic achievement, but he had recently seen the error of his ways. He told me that he felt it was too late for his sons, but he hoped that it wasn't for Anjoli.

It all seemed both heartbreaking and bizarre to me, but the father was sincere. I'd never met a child who didn't know how to play. Maybe, I thought, this father simply didn't know what play looked like. Indeed, I started our first day together on the playground with the theory that it was the father, not the girl, who didn't know about play.

Anjoli was a sweet, quiet girl with a tentative smile. I'm accustomed to children being nervous when they meet me, and she seemed shy, but stood boldly before me nevertheless, ramrod straight, wearing a smile that didn't look particularly natural. I greeted her, "I'm happy you're here" as her father hovered over her. When she didn't immediately respond, he answered for her, "She's happy to be here." 

We run our summer program as a cooperative, so the father was going to be serving as an assistant teacher for one day a week, but this first day he wasn't scheduled, so staying or going was up to him. He seemed as nervous as Anjoi and I took that as an indication that he was worried about leaving her, so I said, "It's not your work day, but you're always welcome to stay. I'll put you to work."

"No, I think I'll go for a walk now," then putting a hand on Anjoli's shoulder, added, "We've talked about this. She wants me to leave, don't you?"

She nodded assent without looking at him, her eyes focused on me. Her father kissed her atop the head then went on his way. Anjoli just stood there, not even really looking around, so I drew her attention to the features of the playground. She looked wherever I indicated, not saying anything. As we stood there, I greeted other children as they arrived, introducing them to Anjoli who considered them silently. As I moved around, she stuck close to me, so I invited her to sit beside me on a table top near the entry gate. It's a perch I often choose for myself because it gives me the best view of the entire space.

We sat mostly in silence as I was busy getting the day going. I didn't want to pepper her with questions, so I would occasionally make informational statements like, "That's Connor. He really like dinosaurs," "We have hammers at the workbench," and "Those kids like playing with the cast iron pump." I'd done this before with slow-to-warm kids, which is the theory I was working on. I was sure that if I just stayed nice and boring, her curiosity would eventually take over. I was wrong. We sat there for nearly half and hour, until I finally had to start moving around. When I did, she stuck with me.

We did a round of the playground together. I chatted with kids painting on easels. One of them had painted her arms up to the elbows and asked me, jokingly, if I wanted a hug. I laughed and said, "Not me! Maybe Anjoli wants a hug!" 

"No!" she shouted in alarm, leaping behind my legs. She said firmly, "I don't like to get messy."

We took a turn together by the work bench where I joined a group of kids pounding nails into scraps of wood. Anjoli kept her distance, saying, "It's too dangerous." She thought the playhouse was "too dirty" and the kids dancing on the stage were "too busy." The risk of getting sand in her shoes kept her from the sandpit, the concrete slide was too high, and the risk of getting wet at the water pump wasn't one she wanted to take. Finally, when we came to swings she took an interest, perching herself in one of the two seats, just hanging there, gently moving with he shifting of her weight. I left her there, only to find her at my hip a few minutes later.

The following day, was her father's work day. I assigned him to manage the art project. I had intentionally kept it simple and tidy for Anjoli and her father: colored pencils, paper, and a pair of electric pencil sharpeners. I anticipated that she would spend her day with him, but she chose instead to once more stick with me. I had thought that her behavior from the day before indicated that she had been longing for her father and that I had merely served for a day as a surrogate, but now I needed a new theory.

I was flummoxed, to be honest, because normally I get to learn about children by either watching them at play or through conversation, but in Anjoli's case, neither was particularly forthcoming. I was still, however, hoping that if I was boring enough, she would begin to take matters into her own hands, and in her way she finally did. 

"Teacher Tom, when are we going to do something?"

"We are doing something. We're sitting together on this table."

"I mean, do something, like . . ." and she waved a hand in the air."

"Like what?"

"Like learn something."

"I'm learning about you. I'll bet you're learning about me."

"Yes," she said. "I learned you're silly."

"That's a compliment. Thank you."

We sat swinging our legs for several minutes, watching the children play. Then she said, "When are you going to tell us what to do?"

My heart dropped. I was a "teacher," this was "school," and she already knew the worst of both of those terms. Maybe her father was right. Maybe she didn't know how to play.

I answered, "I don't think I'll ever tell you what to do."

"No! You must!" She didn't seem angry, but rather astonished.

"Do you want me to tell you what to do?"


"Go play with those other kids."

"Not like that. I want you to give me a lesson."

"The only lessons I know are about playing."

She rolled her eyes. It was the most animated I'd seen her. "That's silly. You don't know how to be a teacher."

"But my name is Teacher Tom," I objected. She remained firm, "No, you don't know how to be a teacher."

"Maybe you could show me."

"I will . . . But first we need some chairs." With this she jumped from the table where we had been sitting and walked down the hill, dragging two chairs back with her. She positioned them in front of me, then sat facing me. "Now you tell me something."

"The trees are tall," I said, pointing into their branches.

"Tell me something else."

"I'm getting hungry. I'm thinking of getting a snack."

"You're doing it wrong," she said, rising to her feet. "I will be the teacher." She made me sit in one of the little chairs and stood in front of me. Then in a calm, even voice she began a lecture that rambled from this to that, facts strung together in a seemingly random manner, punctuated with the question, "Now, what did I just tell you?" She did know how to play: she was playing school as she knew it.

For next several days, we played school together. Other children joined us at times, pulling up their own chairs, but they grew bored quickly. I had several conversations with Anjoli's father during this time. I pointed out that his daughter was playing. It seemed to me that she might be playing the only game she knew, or at least the game that gave her the greatest sense of comfort in a new, clearly confusing place. She was accustomed to order, I figured, and this game was her way to restore order. I gave her father the assignment to befriend some of the other parents with the goal of organizing one-on-one play dates with some of the kids. I hoped that her play instinct would emerge more readily in environments not tainted with the label of "school," which for Anjoli clearly meant sitting in chairs being told what to do. I learned over the next several weeks that most of her life in Vancouver involved going to school, then homework, then violin practice or some other activity, then bed. Her father explained that it was "cultural" to be so focused on achievement and that he had come to regret it.

Anjoli and her father stayed in Seattle for a month. During that time Anjoli continued to play the role she defined as teacher, although it didn't always involve the chairs. Eventually, she began to move away from me a bit, but she continued to avoid anything that seemed messy or dangerous. At one point, I found her sitting alone on a packing crate. She had arranged some wood chips as her students. Sometimes, she would instruct other children, younger ones who looked up to her. One day, near the end of our month together, she was explaining how the water pump worked to a group of children. Having never touched it, her entire body of knowledge had come through observation. When the water wouldn't come as expected, she instantly knew that the cistern was empty, calling out to me that it needed to be refilled. The spigot is just outside of the gate. As I stood there letting the water run, she came over to the fence.

"It's almost full, Teacher Tom."

"Okay, tell me when I should turn it off."

She looked at me with a curious expression, then laughed, "You don't tell me what to do. I tell you what to do!"

I said, "You're silly!"

And she answered, "That's a compliment."

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