The Love of Dare Devil Supreme

The play that I remember as a child would not have had an observable narrative, but it certainly was continuous. On the playground the next day, we would pick up where we left off (more or less). We played on a big grassy field and the common theme was that we were almost always pretending to be horses– sometimes invented, or sometimes based on book horses like Black Beauty or King of the Wind. As we galloped and trotted, the narrative was there, but it was dada.

Thinking about this reminded me of a collection of superhero stories that kids in a Dorchester afterschool class wrote ten years ago. During a breakout session of about 45 minutes per week, a group of nine eight-year-old kids and I would sneak into the classroom from the hallway, literally crawl under a square formation of desks, and then pretend that we were an elite group of superheros. I, as their leader, would get a phone call which would give us instructions about our challenge for the day. This structure was my answer to a rather restrictive writing component that the afterschool program where I worked required;  all kids in my class had to produce stories in about four weeks, and there were core learning components that I was supposed to convey. I didn’t exactly ignore what I was expected to teach, but I thought it was more fun to work on collectively playing and crafting a narrative together; I felt that, if it had to be about skill building, then perhaps that experience might lay the groundwork for later writing.

Each kid developed a superhero character for themselves and then– to some degree– would record how the superheroes played together. What I love about the kids’ resulting stories is not where they shape some kind of beginning, middle and end (the stuff I was supposed to be teaching them), but where their writing offers a glimpse of dada, all-0ver-the-place, suddenly-my-race-car-is-an-airplane play.

All of the characters in the below piece of writing  (the author, Christian, was Teleboy) are characters other kids invented:

One day in a town called Anaheim, there were villains called Dare Devil Supreme Girl, Lightning Strikes, and Dragon Boy. They all came out of nowhere and attacked the good guys called  Dare Devil Supreme, Spider Kid and Teleboy.

“We meet again, girlfriend,” said Dare Devil Supreme to Dare Devil Supreme Girl. “But we are mean enemies so that means we broke up.”

So Dare Devil Supreme did the stunner to Dare Devil Supreme Girl. Then the bad guys were mad so they all used sock attack. Then they were bleeding and bleeding to death. And when they did that, their blood destroyed half of the city. After that they were really, really mad so they just stood there and Reggie came out of nowhere and threw a piece of lava at them and they all caught fire. Then the good guys hit them with everything they had, and they gave up.

Wait, they bled out and then got mad? And who the hell is Reggie? If you were in the know, you would understand that Reggie was another kid’s character, a character that had a very well developed set of abilities and dispositions. And that one of the kids had witnessed a shooting a month before. There was a lot going on. As a teacher, I probably should have intervened to tell Christian that he needed to offer Reggie a proper introduction and coached him in reining in the story. But something would have been lost there, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

Looking back on that time, I wish that writing in the classroom could be as open to possibility as the writing those kids created through play (understanding, of course, that this was play facilitated by/interfered with an adult who was ostensibly being paid to teach them writing skills). 826 Boston does a good job of mixing the joy of storymaking with skill-building, but the more typical model of classroom story-building– thanks to standardized testing, in part, is based on a template– like the “creative” version of the five-paragraph essay. Boston Public Schools is adapting Vivian Gussin Paley’s early childhood play/storytelling techniques for BPS kindergarten classrooms , and that’s great– but what about the older kids?

Social Seating

Winter Storm Nemo just blew through Boston, leaving about five feet of snow on yards, driveways, and, well, everywhere. The shared nuisance of digging out cars and sidewalks creates a social environment that’s somewhat unparalleled; neighbors talk to each other, smile at each other, help each other. Snow– a common nemesis– becomes a social medium.

Snow can also be, of course, a good spontaneous building material. It’s safe to say that while many labored to clear space, other playful people took the products of snow shoveler’s labor to build snow forts in whatever space they can find.

So, the two things that seem to happen in parallel are:

A. We talk to each other because we suddenly all have something (negatively viewed) in common

and

B. We literally build stuff together because suddenly there is available materials.

What if we could bring the two together in a non snowy space?

On Friday nights where I work, the parents who come are deservedly tired. It’s the end of a school and work week. Some adults still wear work uniforms. When I walk down the hallways, the exchanges I see between adults parallel the exchanges I see on my street after a blizzard.

“Whew. I just needed to sit down.” [finds coveted space on bench, sighs]

“Me, too. This was a crazy week.”  [settles back into bench]

These adults already have their “snow”– but instead of a blizzard, it’s the shared experience of being grown-ups who work hard, love their kids through the good and bad, and somehow, at the end of a long week, manage to end up at a place where those kids like to be. Simultaneously, their kids are doing the play space version of what they do after a snowstorm– they’re making stuff and playing around.

Could we design some spatial intervention that builds on this concept of “Me, too” while also engaging kids in the process? What is the institutional version of a movable, morphable, snow-like building material that can connect people in struggle?

Since the tired adults in question are already sitting on the few available benches in the space, this immediately reminded me of a bench that my friends Ben Durrell and Mika Gilmore recently designed for the deCordova Sculpture Park and the ArchitectureBoston Expo:

HexyBenches

I can imagine the bench– called the c612– being used as a slide, a recliner, or a place to hide in plain sight. You can sit back to back, on top, or even under it.

It reminded me of other recent “seating interventions” I’ve seen, from Adriaan Geuze/West  8’s hammocks on Governor’s Island:

hammocks

To Bevan Weissman’s Web, a triple hammock sculpture made of climbing rope and wood:

The-Web-06

The-Web-02

To the bases of Shouwburgplein’s amazing, movable lampposts (also Adriaan Geuze), which act as benches, beds, and more. My colleague, who grew up in Rotterdam, says that they’re a relaxing place to people watch.

lantern bases

What could (or does– please share examples, if you have them!) a morphable, social seating system in a museum look like? Would it be a corner with mattresses, couches and sheets– basically a public living room, with permission to much things up?  Snow is interesting because it creates a sense of shared fun or shared misery– something to work with, or something to deal with. What would the seating equivalent of snow look like in a cozy corner of a public space?

Snakes on a Train

The Power of Play

Snakes on a TrainLast month, my family– including my brother’s two daughters, ages 4 and 8– got stuck on an Amtrak train. While the tracks ahead of us got fixed, our five hour pleasure journey turned into ten hours of… waiting.

“Being a parent is often about heading things off at the pass,” my brother said later, when I commented on his Survivor-style kid engagement. When it became clear that a train car would be home for the foreseeable future, my brother improvised an activity kit: drinking straws, coffee stirrers, pens, pocket knife. Seat trays were deployed. Within a few minutes, the girls were joining straws and stirrers to build snakes and bridges. When the luster of construction wore off, my brother taught the girls to twist rope from straw wrappers.

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These are the Wings

I’m blogging for Boston Children’s Museum’s new Power of Play blog– check it out!

The Power of Play

Dickerson ChristmasI’m six years old, and my family and I are driving home from an evening advent service. Baby Michael is asleep. Matthew, at a rambunctious four years, is not. For a tired family in the thick of the holiday season, the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but my parents know the importance of a detour.

“Let’s visit the fairy land,” my father says, and turns on a side street a few blocks from our house.

The block glows with thousands of bulbous multicolored lights, strung each year by a group of neighbors in the street’s tall California pines. Dad slows the car, and Mom starts singing. We join her: “What a beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight.” And it’s true.

In the life of a family, we might remember holiday activities like opening presents or lighting candles. Those times are memorable, but it’s often the “in-between”…

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Snow Playgrounds

Check out PlayGroundology’s aggregation of snow playgrounds– neighborhood playgrounds with a heavy dose of frost. Snow can turn a humdrum playlot into something much more malleable, don’t you think?

PlayGroundology

NORAD has the market on tracking Santa just about cornered. Kids all over the world follow St. Nick’s Christmas Eve progress online.

In just over a week, the jolly old guy will launch his sled and Christmas 2012 will be here. Kids will be dreaming of a white Christmas where climate makes it a possibility and wondering perhaps what the white stuff is really like if they live outside of the snow zones. Here in Canada’s far east we’re buffeted by Arctic and Atlantic winds at this time of year. So far they’ve only brought us a few dancing flakes that haven’t amounted to anything lasting.

3137172_a6ca8c2550Tisdall Elementary School playground, Vancouver, Canada. Photo Credit – gillicious. License – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The ‘It’s Starting to Feel a lot like Christmas – Snow Playgrounds’ gallery is a selection of 18 photos created by looking through 1000s of images of…

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Maurice Sendak and the “Bullshit of Innocence”

I enjoyed this Believer magazine interview with Maurice Sendak. It was one of his last.

Maurice Sendak didn’t sugar-coat reality for his audience, which happened to consist primarily of kids. In the interview, he says “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s a nice, blunt answer to the romantic rhetoric of childhood, eh? Maurice Sendak, with his childhood colored by tragic inheritances of the Holocaust– in which most of his family died– certainly understood that children know and feel more than most adults wish to acknowledge.

Perhaps owing to this mindfulness, his books tap the powerful, dirty and dynamic spaces of children’s hearts, like spiles in a maple tree. Though the initial sadness of a passage or picture may seem like a direct spear, it is the subsequent subtle drip that releases the reader (both child as well as adult) to get close to the truth slowly.  He positions the truth in between the written words and hides it in plain sight in his illustrations. He does this in part through the environments of his illustrations, like this one from the 1981 book Outside Over There:

Reading a letter from papa, in the 1981 book Outside Over There.

In the Believer interview, Sendak says that he never intended to be a children’s book artist. “What is a children’s-book artist?” he says, referring to how he was treated in the “adult world” of publishing. “A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up.”

Like Sendak, many authors who connect profoundly with young readers are people who do not frame themselves as authors for children. They are people who are aware that childhood is a foreign country– they do things differently there– but have ways of finding commonality in an environment shared by both adult and child. These writers, rather than “growing up,” grow laterally– and continue to do so until, as Sendak hoped to do, they die a “yummy death.”

The text of Emma Brockes’ Maurice Sendak interview can be found here, in the November/December 2012 issue of the Believer.

As I go back to navigating the worlds of childhood play, I am reminded of the first stanza of Wole Soyinka’s “The Children of this Land”:

The children of this land are old.

Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land.

Their feet must learn to follow

Distant contours traced by alien minds.

Their present sense has faded into the past.

The Fullness of the Moment

It’s the day after the presidential election, and I just watched the trailer for the documentary project Seriously, directed by Gwen Gordon. It concludes with a short bit by evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme:

“There’s a fullness in the moment of play that can be considered the way in which the universe is expressing its own magnificence. In a moment of deep play, in a moment of deep love: that’s why the universe exists. There. Not for what it leads to, but there. That moment.”

Last night, in the two-hour-long line to vote in the federal and state elections, I saw a lot of love. I also saw some lovely play. A father and son directly in front of me played wordless games of floor tile hopping. Adults tossed free wrapped crackers back and forth, in between poignant stories of what it was like to wake up, four years ago, in a country where Barack Obama was president.

In line, we were cold, we were tired, and despite the free cookies and crackers, we were a bit hungry. But this line of voters was united by something bigger. Maybe not something as big as the entire cosmos, but at least something as big as from “sea to shining sea”: the idea of something bigger, a reality where a community organizer leads (and continues to lead) the country.

Just as I prepared to fall asleep last night, they called the election for Obama. At that moment, cheers and honking resonated all over Dorchester, from the polling place around the corner to houses where windows were audibly flung open to amplify voices. I imagined a Paul Revere-like figure moving through the streets, spreading hope in the fullness of the moment. And then I drifted off to sleep.

All Saints Day

The witch sisters of Elm Hill.

Yesterday, at the Haunted Hutchings mini-block party, I hung out with 300 of my Dorchester/Roxbury neighbors. Parents met over apple cider and cookies. Kids played with spooky steam from the laundry vent next door. Families posed in a DIY photo booth, clothed as witches, zombies, lizards or kittens.

On Halloween, as we played at being things we are not, we emerged as something we are:

a hardworking, playful community, with deep resources of talent and a critical mass of people who do GOOD.

This connectivity lodges deeply in my heart today, a day which happens to be All Saints’ Day. It’s the day that my family, traditionally, remembers those who we have lost in the past year. In Mexico and other parts of the world, it’s called Day of the Dead and isn’t limited to people who have passed on recently. People observing Día de los Muertos remember the dead with vibrant social spaces that welcome the animas— the spirits of those we knew– to return to us. Families build ofrendas (altars) with photographs of the lost person and food and objects that person loved in life. It’s playfully serious and DIY– a homemade reminder that “as you are now so once was I”– but it also carries with it the ever-present imperative of memory. If the animas return to the world of the living and that they have not been welcomed, then there will be consequences for the living. Day of the Dead galvanizes us to remember, and do so in public, extending and exporting “the privacy and intimacy of grieving” (Reyes-Cortez 2012).

In my neighborhood, many families carry a disproportionate share of private and public grieving. Street memorials with candles and teddy bears– everyday ofrendas– are constant reminders of the animas of lost children. Over 70% of violence happens in 5% of Boston’s city blocks (Kennedy et al., 1997), and some of those blocks are not far from where we live.

Stories emerged while I chatted to neighbors in the weeks preceding Haunted Hutchings. Robert, my neighbor, waved to a woman taking out her trash on Elm Hill and told me that the woman’s son had died where we stood, five years before. Robert saw it happen. While standing outside my friend and colleague’s house a few blocks over, a father walking by asked about a sculpture that had been part of a gallery show at the Children’s Museum.  The sculpture– wrought by artist Ben Tau in metal found on this very street– depicted his son, who had been killed nearby around the same time. Yvonne Abraham’s lovely article in the Globe last week thankfully focused on the uplifting parts of the Haunted Hutchings project, but we cannot deny the memories that truly haunt these streets.

Pairing these very human stories with those very cold statistics, many people would not see our neighborhood as a “relaxed field,” a factor that must be in place if play is to occur (Burghardt, 2005). For a creature to be able to play, it needs a low level of stress/competition for resources, adequate food, a basic level of health and parental care. Burghardt’s criteria reference non-human animals, but humans are no different. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about food; when the stresses of your life make parenting especially challenging; when your son gets involved in something he shouldn’t– or worse, when he was exactly where he was supposed to be– and it ends in tragedy.

Despite all the stresses families face, somehow, Haunted Hutchings– with its kittens, lizards, and a whole family of zombies– was a “relaxed field.” It fell somewhere between that and the “magic circle”– the space that is “a temporary world within the ordinary world” (Huizinga, 1955). It’s the space where a few factors– cultivation of space, the words we use– combine to magically indicate that the game has started. It’s a play bow, a predication, a move towards something different.

Through people like Steve and Allison and Dane and Amy and Liz and Linda and Carla and Marilyn and Lester and Rick and Robert and all the other neighbors on my block, with the stimulus of the Grove Hall Trust, we faced our fears playfully on Halloween. We started something magical.

On All Saints’ Day, I remember my Grandma Doris and her playful Halloween parties. I remember Ivol Brown, a young person I knew who was murdered several years ago. I think of my colleague Patrick and his friend who was shot and killed in Dorchester just a few months ago. I hold all the mothers and fathers of my neighborhood in my heart– my inner ofrenda— and I pose a challenge and a question.

To my fellow players– my neighbors in this magic circle of promise— my question is this: where does the game go next? How will we continue to play for keeps?

Let’s get started.

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey“Diversity and Play,” 1998

Haunted Hutchings

This Halloween, with a grant from the Grove Hall Trust, we’re calling our block of Hutchings Street exactly what it is: a SAFE STREET for kids and a GREAT PLACE for neighbors to connect.

We’re a group of neighbors who are organizing the street to create a festive atmosphere that will make families feel safe and playful.  If you live on the block (2 – 86 Hutchings), go here to learn how you can help out. 

EVERYBODY ELSE, READ ON!

WHAT: Haunted Hutchings

WHEN: October 31, 6:30 – 8:30pm

WHERE: Trick-or-treating all up and down the block; mini-block party outside the old Garrison School, at 20 Hutchings St (just past the corner of Hutchings and Elm Hill).

The event is FREE courtesy of our sponsors:

Grove Hall Trust (providing the seed money for luminaria to light the path, candy, our photo booth and decorations)

A Sweet Place (candy store in Fields Corner, providing candy rewards just for parents!)

Lindsey’s Sweets Treats (a new family business based in Grove Hall, providing candy for all)

Whole Foods Jamaica Plain (providing cider and cookies)

AND

The Families of Hutchings Street: opening their doors to the neighborhood!

We know that not everyone celebrates Halloween. Regardless of whether you celebrate Halloween, we hope you’ll come over to the community tent, have a cup of cider, and enjoy the company of neighbors in a harvest-themed (not scary or spooky) environment.
To get linked in, check out the event Facebook page here:

http://www.facebook.com/events/164392917018000/