Cootie-Catchers & Oxygen Masks: The Grown-Up’s Right to Play

Boston Children’s Museum’s Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity was a landmark convening of neuroscientists, pediatricians, educators, business professionals and policymakers. Presentations by leaders such as Harvard researcher Jack Shonkoff, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Executive Director John Barros and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish (not to mention Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick) urged the formation of a broad partnership dedicated to improving the outcomes of all children entering kindergarten. It was amazing.

I had the privilege of leading an afternoon Innovation Session alongside two other “Thought Leaders”: Janet Rice Elman, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums, and Dr. Don Wertlieb, President of the Partnership for Early Childhood Development and Disability Rights. Our focus was the Power of Play for All Families, and my talk focused on “Adult Play.” Below is a slightly expanded summary of the April 5, 2013 talk. 

Cootie Catcher

I see that many of you have started to fool around with the paper fortune tellers sprinkled around the room. When I told my teen coworkers that this session was at the end of the Summit, they thought you might need something playful to do. They folded these “cootie-catchers”– as I used to call them as a kid– for you.

The teens’ other suggestion was that I lead you in a game of duck, duck, goose. Some of you look relieved that we’re not playing duck, duck, goose right now. I’m with you. If I came in to this room and told you to get on the floor or run around, you would probably think: Oh, god, another team building exercise. When we create somewhat forced opportunities for adults (particularly parents) to play, we often do just the opposite: add just one more piece of unexpected work to their to-do lists, one more place to feel subtly inadequate. However, when a different kind of self-chosen play takes place in a space, that micro-action shifts a space forever. How many of you remember the micro-aggressive feeling of spitballing, passing notes or folding a fortune teller in a classroom much like this one? Play can be a form of small, political power for those held in captivity, just as you are, to some extent, at this moment. Play transforms your lens on a space; by paying attention to the stuff around you, you gain a second sight that reveals more choices, options, and a sense of hope that your environment offers more than meets the eye.

I’m lucky to spend most of my time in an environment that is officially called a “children’s” museum; however, children are not the only demographic audience. How many of you have been to a children’s museum as an adult? Over 50% of our audience are over 18. They are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighborhood friends, and teachers. This composition is radically different from that of the first sixty years of children’s museums, when neighborhood children visited semi-autonomously (Manter 1933). In many communities, children’s museums are the only institutional spaces that are explicitly designed as spaces for play and joyful discovery.

Now, imagine, for a second, that we’re all on an airplane (don’t worry, I’m not going to force you to make airplane sounds). Each of us is seated with a child. Suddenly, the cabin pressure drops. The compartments above your head reveal dangly oxygen masks. In this moment of crisis, what are you supposed to do? What did the nice flight attendants and your seat pocket instructions tell you to do if this happened? Put on your own mask first, before assisting others.

oxygen mask

Though much of the research on play focuses on children, play’s oxygen-like properties– restorative, life-giving, stress relieving–  can help adults. Through Dr. Shonkoff’s talk and other presentations today, we have explored the destructive role of toxic stress in the lives of young children. A child’s early experiences, largely controlled by adults, impact not just learning but also health; individuals who were maltreated in childhood experience a much higher rate of heart disease as adults (Danese et al. 2008).  A primary contributor to toxic stress is maternal depression, and as Dr. Shonkoff said, information and advice alone will not buffer children from a parents’ personal wellbeing. We need to go beyond the pamphlet to impact the environmental roots of stress and encourage true capacity-building in adults, transforming the lives of parents. Chick (2001), in a summary of observations about play, says that “play disappears under stress.” This is echoed by Burghardt (2009), who says that play behavior is initiated when the animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress; in other words, when the animal is in a “relaxed field.” The moderate level of arousal or anxiety created in play may be beneficial by enabling enhancement of stress response systems and developing repertoires to respond in appropriate ways to environmental stimuli. Sounds suspiciously like good parenting technique, doesn’t it?

So here we are, with a quandary: Research indicates that free form play leads to the greatest advantage in brain building and plasticity in children. Playful experiences in a relaxed environment can make adults feel better and less depressed. Then why are so many children’s museums sticking with the parent information model for play?

Children’s museums and other play-based environments need to think more deeply about not just how we see adults as children’s “first teachers,” but also as unique individuals who can benefit from the transformative moments of play. In these child-centered environments, in which adults may themselves feel like a “captive population,” how can we create the “relaxed fields” in which adults can begin to play? In an often-stressful place where parents often feel that their parenting styles and techniques are judged not by the staff but by other parents, and the concern of misplacing a child in the hustle and bustle of the museum is always present, how can we create places where adults move from wardens to players?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with a museum education world increasingly focused on communal family learning, I’m saying something quietly radical:

 If children’s museums and other play-based environments want to truly impact children through their caring adults’ capacity to be “available and responsive,” then we must create conditions where adults and children can play separately

That’s why my Boston Children’s Museum colleagues and I started Grownup Breakroom, a monthly experiment in providing the conditions for adult play. Since last fall, GB has provided a place for adults to be with other adults, co-created by museum experience designers and users in a design process similar to the GoKids program. On Target Friday nights, when admission is $1 per person and parents are often dead-tired from a long work week, we set up two rooms that are adjoined by one door. One room is styled for adults. The other is prepared with conditions for children’s play. We make an offer to adults: come into the Breakroom for fifteen minutes or so, sit down, have a cup of coffee. Parents can check out toys they may remember from their own childhoods (Lite-Brite, an Easy Bake Oven from the late 70s/early 80s) and try simple crafts. Music plays. If we can get them, volunteer masseuses offer hand and shoulder massages. Parents can connect with each other through simple games in which, for instance, if they find another grown-up born in the same month, both adults are entered into a drawing for a free museum pass. Staff member Leora Rifkin, who is a natural match-maker, works the room like it’s a cocktail party at her house, introducing adults to each other and making connections like a boss. Adults also sign up for the free Very Important Family card, which links them into future events like this one.

In the directly adjoining room, our staff engage younger children with Imagination Playground giant blue blocks. Kids over the age of eight join Teen Ambassadors to play alternative reality games, make short movies, or a variety of other activities. Mixed-age play begins to happen fluidly.

Such segmentation of audience may seem counterintuitive to family learning. However, this foundation of peer-to-peer playful experiences seems to lead to the very family learning we aspire to. Adults self-report that they are more likely to do double dutch after a break, or engage in dramatic play in Arthur’s World. One parent said as she left the Breakroom table, “I feel like I can actually enjoy this now. I just needed to sit a minute.” Most importantly, they say they feel happier.

The basic formula that we are testing seems to be:

user-centered design that focuses on adults’ needs + separate experiences for adults and kids = increased parental responsiveness & social connectedness

How are we giving parents permission to access the oxygen of play, not just the suggestion that they do so? How do we offer parents places to be with other parents and say, in the words of Brene Brown, “Me, too– I also struggle”? Vygotsky’s scaffolding is not about an all-knowing teacher guiding children’s play– it’s as much about the guidance of a “more experienced peer.” When families have networks and can learn from each other, there are more chances for them to withstand crisis. Combine the resiliency effects of play with the effects of increased social capital, and you have a space that can be more than just a breakroom.

Given the right conditions, play in that space could be a transformative force in the lives of emotionally captive, stressed adults: a much-needed oxygen mask.

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