I posted this quote last night and today a long session of play at the play dough table made me realise just how true that is. By playing alongside the children and indicating to them that I was up for some play in which we could say that something was ‘whatever-we-liked’, so long as there was a passing resemblance, I started by wondering what two pink objects left over from earlier players could be..’Are they sad wizard hats? Are they limp pink carrots? Or are they collapsing pointy fingers?” The children agreed on hats, so after trying to make them stand up as happy wizard hats, I took them both and mashed them together and made one solid wizard hat. Meanwhile the children were making other things and conversation sort of went around things that sagged or collapsed or broke…oh, yes, one boy, Richard, let’s call him, leaned over and broke one thin sad wizard hat in two. And it broke, which is why I made one out of two.
And then it stood up like a little mountain and I pronounced that it was happy.I grabbed a piece of card and drew the mathematical equation : one thin sad wizard hat + one thin sad wizard hat = one fat happy wizard hat.( I am blaming too much coffee!)
(Digression: much later on, another child at the table made two fat circles and I enquired if they were binoculars or zeros or doughnuts, and he pronounced the latter. When I looked his way a while later, it had become one fat doughnut, so I drew another mathematical equation showing two small doughnuts = one big doughnut. Strangely, although I knew nothing about this particular lad apart from his name, it turned out that he was a bit mathematically inclined! Later,he made a fat sausage lying vertically and laid a thinner one across it horizontally…
Is that a sword? I asked .
He said no, it was such and such, and I eventually appreciated that he was saying that it was a sad plus! Because its arms drooped when he held it up! I love the imagination of children…. I was way behind on that one! How do you know about plus, I asked him. ‘My Mum taught me’, he replied.
So back to the main story…well, there were about four or five stories (as many stories as there were players!)…but ultimately they organically wove together with a bit of adlibbing narrative commentary by me.
Once they realised that I took my (and their)stories and play seriously and did not find it funny when Richard (and others) mischievously squashed my creations (that old sand castle scenario!) they started playing in a similar way. There was a boat dock and boats and there was a huge pumpkin wizard who eventually arrived in a frying pan boat
and there was a lion (made by me to see if I could make something that looked like a lion.. we tested it on another teacher and she was able to recognise it. We worked out how many legs it would need – ‘Three’ said Richard….’How many at the back?’ asked I ‘Two’. ‘And at the front?’ ‘Two’, and you, my gentle readers, know the rest…. And he got a tail and a mane and so on.
Well, we still haven’t reached the crux of this post!! The boats needed tying up, according to Richard, and so there were fat sausages rolled into rope and the scissor boat was tied up,
And we all generally agreed that it was not a good idea to let things float away. That we wanted things to be where we left them and not to find the tiger had wandered off into the forest.
This became such an important topic of conversation that Richard and I retired briefly to the carpentry table to make a different sort of boat that you really could tie up. With a nail at the front to loop the loop of the rope over, and we came back and tied that to the island.
And then it was lunch and hear this, dear reader, during lunch I (being a reliever for only a couple of weeks and not knowing any of the backgrounds of any of the children) enquired about Richard’s story . It turns out that Richard’s parents have recently separated and he has acquired two new step-parents in a very short time and each of the new partners have already got children themselves as well. That makes for a universe that is pretty full of things that look like they are, or actually are, in danger of floating away. I find it very moving to discover this link between his inner world and the play metaphors he chose, whereby to express and in some way maybe resolve his understanding of some pretty big challenges. I am full of admiration for his emotional integrity and the way he is using ‘just playing’ (so-called) to find a meaningful metaphor for what he is experiencing in his life.
I recently read a book called ‘The Examined Life’ which suggests that if we can’t find some way to tell our story, then our story starts to tell our life for us, and we are no longer the major scriptwriters. The unspoken script runs our life for us. I find this a very true statement. This was referring in particular to a client whose first twelve months of life were traumatic (but was told otherwise, and could never understand why he always felt afraid and acted accordingly). Here, through the subtle metaphors of happy and meaningful play, a boy is making meaningful patterns and sense out of his own story, and placing himself in a pro-active and powerful role within the script…as the tie-er upper-er.
Later, just before home time, I was cutting up some plastic boat shaped forms to fill with old play dough for tomorrow and Richard and Lily helped me cut them out. I asked what boats sometimes need, and we agreed that sails could be important and Lily thought a captain’s wheel would be good, and Richard suggested an anchor. So we made anchors. It’s hard to get a piece of wool to stay ‘tied’ to soggy play dough so I suggested that we could tie the ‘rope’ around an ice-block stick and bury it under the entire boat- shaped lump of playdough that filled the form. He liked that and made yet another one, this time tying one end to an ice-block stick and one end to a large pine cone. He generously offered the latter to a friend because he now had four boats altogether to take home. He went home contentedly showing his magnificent fleet to his mother.