Keeping Playfulness Alive Into Teen Years

“When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget…our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.” ~Lenore Terr

Every other Saturday morning a talkative gaggle of 10 to 14-year-olds get together to create, stage, and film stories they’ve written. Today’s session is taking place on a rainy day in Hailey’s basement where the kids have plenty of room. Hailey’s cousins Dylan and Luke are the prop masters. The boys get what they need from a suitcase packed with hats, belts, jewelry, wallets, stick-on tattoos, sunglasses, a police badge, fake nails, and a few masks. A bigger suitcase will probably be necessary because they keep accumulating props.

Hailey’s dad, Jason, says he found the idea a few years ago in my book Free Range Learning and his daughter took off with it, inviting her cousins and friends to give a playwrights’ group a try. (Here’s more info on starting interest-based groups.)

The group didn’t start off all that smoothly. The kids seemed stymied about how to proceed and argued about whose ideas were best. The adults avoided intervening, instead leaving the young playwrights to their own devices. At first the kids decided to keep a list of proposed characters and plots, voting which to use. After a while they dropped the list because fresh ideas kept coming. They still argue sometimes while jockeying to better promote their opinions. (Those verbal tussles are actually an important part of gaining social skills.) Jason says they’ve learned to combine ideas and now more graciously share the glory with each other.

During their first year together the kids would agree on a rough story line, then act it out with improvised lines and actions. They’d climb up the backyard slide to elude kidnappers and perish in dramatically extended death throes, these scenes often mixed into incongruous plots like an underwater fashion show gone wrong. Their audience, mostly parents and grandparents, reliably applauded.

The last two years they’ve developed a more sophisticated process. They write scripts and practice them a few times, work on costumes and staging, set up lighting, then film their performances. They edit the videos to include music and credits. They’re so enthralled by devising and acting out stories that they’re frequently in touch with each other nearly between sessions, eagerly planning and honing their ideas. Recently their parents agreed to let them stay for longer sessions. Now all eight kids in the group arrive with packed lunches so they can work until through the afternoon.

Part of the pain of preteen and adolescent years has to do with a loss of playfulness. Too soon they leave behind the delights of play for a peer culture where being accepted often depends on superficial standards of attractiveness and popularity. Kids feel as if they’re under constant scrutiny by others in their age group; judged by how they look, what they own, what they say and do. When play is stripped away by the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in, something vital is lost.

Some kids manage to keep enthusiasm-friendly spaces in their lives where they’re free to be playful well into their teens. They may find the right circumstances in summer camps, school clubs, music groups, community theater, choir, volunteer programs, youth groups, and pick-up games. Sometimes they’re able to let themselves be playful when they’ve traveled to a new place. Sometimes they look forward to extended family get-togethers where they can hang out with younger relatives.

When I asked online for stories about play-friendly preteen and teen experiences I got all sorts of responses.

Many people said getting together with a specific intent enabled them to indulge in playfulness.

Jennifer Tejada: “My drama club was very helpful, assignments that required playfulness being the great equalizer among students.”

Malik: “There was nowhere to be myself until I started rapping with a few other guys. We let loose all our frustrations and aggravations, and it was like that freed us up to laugh like we’d never laughed before. I didn’t let it go at school or in the neighborhood but with those guys, rapping, I could be myself.”

Some describe a place that gave them the freedom to be playful and expressive. 

Cait : After school, in my middle school and high school years, I would go with my neighborhood friends (all ages, all different cliques) and walk in the conservation land that bordered our property. We would make forts, and as we got older we called them ‘nooks’ because forts were so passé. We would go on adventures, tell stories, climb trees…

And sometimes, play-safe places meant a break from daily routines.

Denise Bowman: “For me it was when I was away from peers, doing a trip with my mom. On vacation, away from home, with just us, I was much more able to engage in playfulness and not be so concerned on how I was ‘coming across.'”

Darren: “I lived for summer camp. For three summers, starting when I was 13, I went to a math camp at an urban college. I showed up nervous, acting like I didn’t care, wham, into a totally different world. I met kids from different countries, kids who were gay, kids who were aspies, all of us math geeks. We had fun I experienced nowhere else. When I’m down all I have to do is remember staying up all night to make a math tower (don’t ask) as a joke for our favorite instructor.”

Over the phone I can hear conversation and laughter spilling over in Hailey’s basement. The preteens have invited a few of their younger siblings to play roles in a production they’re calling “Clones, Inc.” Hailey’s dad Jason says the kids have coated Hailey’s toddler brother with lotion so he’ll look like a “freshly hatched” baby clone. Jason is surprised how eager the two-year-old is to comply. When he’s with the older kids, this toddler demonstrates far more patience than he normally does, even delivering the one line they’ve given him over and over till it’s just right.

Jason, who retreats upstairs to finish our call, says he can tell when they’re filming. The hubbub of enthusiasm gives way to expectant quiet that, even a floor away, sounds full of promise.

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