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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Surprising Insights from The Humble Play Corner

The front window at Marigold, overlooking the play area.

Have We Forgotten How To Play?

by Rudy The Pharmacist

I have recently viewed two TED talks on the subject of play and they have inspired this piece on how I have to incorporate more playfullness into my daily life. Not for amusement , but as an integral part of a well balanced life scheme. I now realize that 30-30-20-20 rule works out well for me. It goes like this: plan the 30%, be surprised by 30%, ponder the 20% and for the balance...unplan. The humble play corner at Marigold has been a source of this insight. It is one of those things that intuitively felt right, then we did it wrong, then we stood back and it fell into place. We planned then we unplanned.

Two Browns on Play

Tim Brown is the CEO of a design and innovation company and he talks about the seriousness of play. It leads to creativity and looseness and imparts the inadvertent ability to think outside the box. Perfectionism and regimentarianism are the kryptonite of creativity. The only perfect truth is that perfection is an impossible standard; an idea that is untenable. Especially so in a creative environment, which is admittedly, the only environment that spirals upwards and not downwards. Downwards spirals are useful in limited applications, for one, the water as it flushes down the toilet. However, it is what happens when creativity dies. Ask any creative person (actually, ask any person): what have you done today that is creative. If they start reciting a long list of activities, you are talking to a real living individual. Creativity is the oxygen of inventiveness. Here is a link to Tim Browns enjoyable talk.

Tim Brown heads an innovation think tank and studies the role of play in sparking creativity.
Click to see Tim Brown's TED talk:


Another Brown, Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation....but mmm) got intrigued about the subject of play when he was investigating the lives of convicted murderers. He found a link to the absence of childhood play and devoted his career in psychiatry to the subject of play as a behavioural template. According to Brown, play develops our ability to read signals and creates the early modes of conduct. He stresses the importance of play in the workplace as a stress reliever and promoter of a social network. Play can be the effective alternative to social network's evil twin, Facebook and its megalomaniac sister, Twitter. Robert Fulghum wrote a brilliant book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. The lessons are simple: play nice, wait your turn, share, don't hit.

Dr. Stuart Brown , a psychiatrist who noted the absence of play in the childhood of convicted murderers.
Click to See Stuart Brown's TED talk:


The Marigold Play Corner

A few months ago, I was walking by the window of Too Good To Be Threw, which is a fantastic thrift store on 6th Street. It is fantastic because it is right next door to Marigold, plus all the proceeds go to the Transition Society. I saw a beautiful beaded bright green table. I pictured it as child's play table and the next day, we cleared the front area of the store and created a play center. It worked out beautifully. We had all the elements in the store already: the brown carpet, the wooden box, the seats, the fabric for the seats, the benches. By the end of the day it was all set up.

Inspired by a play table, the play center materialized out of things we had already.
Then we eagerly watched what happened. Nothing. The kids did not play. We had to play with them.Since I love playing, that was OK. I would, you know, just get things rolling. However, I could not give up my other "important" duties to be the official  Ronald McMarigold. So short of making balloon animals (which I am really good at by the way), we analyzed what was happening.  One of the staff came up with a brilliant idea. Put the toys at the child's level. We put the toys on the floor and guess what happened? It worked immediately. It turns out children know what to do. It was not what we thought they would do. We had forgotten how to play.

Nancy's beautiful stained glass fills the corner with green and yellow sunbeams. 
 We bought a Connect Four game and challenged the kids to a game. If they beat any of the staff, they get to win a toy from the toy box. I got beat by a nine year old and then I got beat by a ten year old. I made a little girl almost cry when I raised my hands and stood up with a loud YES!!! when I won. It was a pretty brutal unmasking of the ego that lurked within. It was so hilarious, I laughed out hard at my stupidity. We dropped the Connect Four Challenge thing that day.

Play should be removed from gamesmanship...it is enough to promote pure play at its essence. There is no requirement for rules, or trophies of green jackets or yellow jerseys. These just leads to all sorts of trouble. What to do you do with your livestrong bracelet now?

Play without the fear of not winning. Children are naturally good at this. So at the Marigold Play Corner, we needed to let go of planned play. We had to back off, not direct, not guide, not hover.  Soon, we noticed the children inspecting the corner. In time, the children would let go of their parents hands and suss it out. Then they fell into play. It became their space. The play changed from child to child. Always, they invented games and came up with elaborate set ups. Two kids took all of the Jenga blocks and three sets of dominoes and lined them up in a spirally circle  six feet across. This took them two hours to do. Three seconds to knock down.

Some parents (the wise ones who would have creative geniuses giving TED talks one day) will go with the flow and linger in the store or watch from a distance. Some parents (the hurried ones who have places to go, lattes to sip and boots to buy) would cut off the play mid-play and round up the kids like kettlecorn....pop, pop, pop.

Connect Four, which is now free to be  Connect Whatever or Clinking Machine or something else.

Free to Be a Child Play

So, the play corner has freed itself from our ill-conceived plans and attempts at "intelligent" design. It is a really popular corner now and to see a child immersed in self-designed play right in the middle of our store restores the energy of the place like a fog machine of happiness. It has assumed its own intelligence, with little help from us.

Our role is simple: remove poky things, no small bits to swallow, nothing too heavy to crush toes,  no lead in the plastic. Other than that, the rest is up to the children. Everyday, we look over to the play corner and learn lessons on how to play from the children. They always have it right. Its their turf.

Each child creates their own game. Instinctively, they find the joy in freeplay.