Can play be the answer?
“Can you untie this rope?” A 10-year-old student approaches me at a play event struggling to untie a rope he wants to play with. When I suggest that he CAN untie it, that he is competent, he breaks down in tears exclaiming, “But I’ve tried a million times!”
I have been watching this young man play. I know that he has only had the rope in his hands for less than a minute, indicating that his perseverance and tolerance for trying without help is minimal. Not appreciating my feedback or belief in his skills, he approaches another adult who helps him without hesitation.
We often step in to help when we need to support the try. But struggle often makes us uncomfortable.
When we keep people “safe” from experience or failure, we come to believe that they cannot be capable, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The increased pace of our everyday lives has made us less patient and less likely to invest time and effort in developing new skills.
I remember tying my daughter’s shoes each day before school, just to get out the door faster. Until one day, her preschool teacher told me that she was capable of tying her own shoes! I hadn’t stopped to consider that was even possible, and she hadn’t offered to do it, knowing that when I tied her laces, it meant she didn’t have to. I asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me you knew how to tie your shoes?” Her simple answer: “You never asked.”
We keep things fast and safe because the pressure of keeping up decreases our tolerance for change.
As parents sometimes we don’t even see how tightly we are hanging on to routine and regimen as a tool for survival. We take away the unpredictable and unplanned, and with it we take away a chance to learn, adapt and thrive.
At some point in our lives, for example, we discover that playing with fire can be a very dangerous and painful experience. But we also learn that fire can comfort us and help us engage with nature in complex ways. Until you have experience with fire and choose that you like to be around it, build it, and nurture it, you would never know anythingabout it other than that it’s “unsafe.” The same can be said for people; without context, it is difficult to engage, connect, ask, try, falter, fail, flop, and try again. Ever had an awkward conversation with someone new? What if we never had first conversations?
Connection takes practice and experience. Have you ever tried to light wet paper? You know it takes patience and often more than one match. It’s the same with people; we are often deterred by the thought of inviting new people into our spaces because we have not practiced getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. When faced with unfamiliar or new, we have to fight the urge to run. Not every spark is a wildfire, but we must have that first encounter, explore how we feel about it, and move forward to know whether or not we are playing with fire.
Here is to playing in the uncomfortable and unpredictable, together.
Play on my friends.