Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Teaching How to Play

Dr. Bill Michaelis at Fun Fest

Michaelis first recognized the value of play through college sports and general class clown foolishness. He decided early on that fun is FUNdamental. and went on to get his PhD in Education specializing in play and human development from University of California-Berkeley or “berserk-ley” as Michaelis quipped. I tried to imagine, as he downplayed his background, what it would have been like studying the theory of play in Northern California in the 1960’s. Visions of crazy smart, idealistic, counterculture hippies danced in my head to the Grateful Dead song, Golden Road. Michaelis credits the New Games Foundation in San Francisco for having a strong influence on him during the seventies and eighties.

We didn’t talk much about the need for play. We are both biased about the social, emotional, and developmental benefits. I wanted to know what’s changed and what’s new in the field of play.

“It’s more diverse. There are more things being studied and written about it in more circles (anthropology, psychology, education, health and wellness). The circles are wider. But there are still incredible challenges. It’s like we know how important it is, but we still aren’t doing it as much as needed,” Michaelis said.

He pointed to some obvious culprits of why we aren’t playing more: tiger moms, misused technology and a consumer driven society that has blurred the distinction between costly entertainment and free play. We both laughed at the irony when Michaelis said that  the new fads in Silicon Valley are hosting “unplugged parties”  and camp weekends.

While everyone from the United Nations to Kaboom, to The National Wildlife Federation and The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the play deficit crisis facing today’s children, Michaelis caught my attention because his work focuses on getting people of all ages playing again. In addition to helping make the office more fun, many of his trainings are designed for caregivers. There’s a reason adults are told to put their oxygen mask on first during a flight emergency. Who will schedule and supervise the playdates when the helicopter parent suffocates? What is the joyless teacher really teaching when he or she is obviously frazzled?

“We need to be better advocates. We need to keep this conversation going and model play for the next generation. If what we are seeing now becomes the normative, we’re in serious trouble,” Michaelis told me by phone while recovering from knee surgery at his home in San Francisco.

I suspect keeping a man like Michaelis off his feet is like trying to keep a puppy from chewing. Michaelis is laid up until December. Like brushing one’s teeth, play is such a habit for him, he hasn’t let his mobility stop him from maintaining a lively routine.  Until he is able to bike and hike the hills again, he reads political satire or watches a funny movie. He plays board games and uses his wit to describe obscure scenarios with song lyrics. During our conversation, he cracked several jokes. After all, humor goes hand in hand with play, and Michaelis knows from experience its always the best medicine.


For more information about Michaelis and The Leader’s Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun, Games, Play and Positive Interaction, visit his website at  www.children-together.com or check out a host of other playful products at www.venturepublish.com

Building Breakable Barriers



I noted that our parks and recreation department should take a cue from the Brits. Like so many parks we encountered on our trip, Grovesnor Park had free ping pong tables,, giant chess sets, free yoga classes and a stage where a band was setting up for a free afternoon performance. My son and husband became engrossed in a competitive ping-pong match, while my daughter curiously explored some foam blocks. Before she and I finished building a wall, other children joined in to knock it down. Soon everyone had a different idea of what to build: A fort, a stage, a staircase. They took turns trying different ideas. They helped each other create their visions and than shared in the pay off, total destruction!

Brainstorm,.Build, Breakdown, Repeat. They played for an hour with those foam blocks, just some simple yellow blocks. There were many days this summer when an hour seemed like an eternity to my bored kids and I would have paid big money for an hour to myself. I need these blocks, I thought, already reaching for my phone to Google where I could buy some.

“Excuse me.” A little dark haired girl about my daughter’s age interrupted me. “Is your daughter Muslim?” She asked.

My daughter has white blonde hair and blue eyes. “No, she’s not,” I told her and smiled.

“Oh, she is Christian?” the girl’s brown eyes widened as the wheels visibly turned in her head. She ran back to join the game.  

My immediate reaction was relief that I hadn’t turned into a provincial, paranoid tourist. Even the children knew about the division, and probably sensed the unease. But in this park, playmates simply looked like playmates.  Inside the castle they were building together, their laughter was indistinguishable from one another. They were the same.

When we finally left, the girl joined her mother, who was covered in a veil and burqa. Just past the park gates, guards with machine guns paced. We returned home a week later to find similar “us-versus them” news headlines about racial unrest and police shootings.

Maybe I should buy those blocks. Alot of blocks.



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