“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
“Hey Mr. Allen!” Danny (6 y/o) yelled from across the school yard. “Come look at what we built. We made a restaurant and you can eat anything you want!” He and his friends – all in my grade 1 class – were huddled in the corner of the playground.
“Ok!” I yelled. “I’m coming!” Toora noticed my approach and sprinted over to meet me. She was out of breath, panting with controlled patience, ready to reveal something inevitably amazing. “Mr. Allen, Mr. Allen, she said between breaths. “We have this amazing restaurant! You can have anything you want! What would you like to have? Do you want dumplings?”
“Well what else do you have?” I asked.
“Um, we have…any kinds of food you want. Just say something and I will go make it for you.”
Then Danny came dashing behind Toora and stopped in front of me. “Mr. Allen,” he said. “I’m a server, and we want to invite you to eat at our restaurant.”
I perceived Danny’s invitation as an excellent opportunity to join my little actors upon a stage of imaginative artistry – engineered and steered solely by the hearts and minds of these children. They choose who gets to participate in their world of fantasy, and they call the shots of how the play will go. That’s just how it is, and that is how it ought to be. With permission to enter their sacred place of imaginative play, I walked in.
“Hmm,” I said with dramatic sobriety. “I don’t know, Toora. I was hoping to see a menu of some sort. I’m a pretty picky eater.”
Toora and Danny exchanged glances. “Ok, wait right here, Mr. Allen,” Danny said. “I’ll be right back.” They ran away to confer with their colleagues. Danny returned with his entourage of restaurant staff: Mark, Natalie , Steve, and Robbie. “Come with me,” Danny said. “We have a menu prepared for you.”
On our way to the corner of the playground, Steve said, “I’m the manager of this restaurant. You can ask anyone who works here and they will tell you what we have. Please sit down. Someone will be with you soon.”
Natalie escorted me to a lawn chair and said, “Here Mr. Allen, sit down and we will serve you some delicious food!”
Danny walked up to me holding a large green leaf, which he folded into the shape of an ice cream cone. He had filled the cone up with soil and stuck a few twigs into it. “These are Hula Sticks,” Danny explained. “They retain you and help you stay hungry until the food comes.”
“Excellent! I’ll take a Hula Stick,” I said. “What else do you have?”
“We have chicken and strawberry kabobs,” said Robbie. “Would you like one?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I would also like a vegetarian kebab with pineapple and watermelon.”
“Sorry, Mr. Allen, but we don’t have that,” Robbie said with a sympathetic frown. “But we do have vegetarian dumplings. Would you like a vegetarian dumpling?”
“Indeed I would, good sir!” I exclaimed. “What else is on the menu?”
“Well we have this really great salad,” said Danny. Now Danny was holding a yogurt container filled with dirt. “The dirt is brown cheese,” he explained. “It tastes just like blue cheese but it’s brown.”
“Brilliant!” I stammered. “I always wanted to eat brown cheese that tastes like blue cheese!”
“You should really have some dessert,” said Robbie. “Our ice cream is organic. And it has toys on the bottom for little kids.”
“Toys on the bottom for little kids,” I echoed. “I would be delighted.”
“I am so satisfied with the food!,” I said loud enough for all the children to hear. Your restaurant rocks! And what perfect timing: I’ve just finished my dessert and it’s time to go back to the classroom for lunch!”
As the children ran off to eat, remained back with me. She asked if I could give her a piggyback ride to the classroom. As always, I agreed. I knelt down low enough for her to hitch onto my back. On our way, we talked more about the restaurant. Natalie informed me that their restaurant would be open again tomorrow, and that I was invited for a brand new menu of food. I told Natalie to have a table ready for me at 12:30pm sharp. As I turned my head to catch Natalie ’s reaction, I saw her beaming with happiness. We walked the rest of the way in silence, tacitly sharing a feeling of closure to a wonderful journey that took place in a small nook of the playground.
In those 15 minutes of spontaneous role-play, I experienced my students shine in their element as little geniuses; as teachers who led me through a workshop on how to understand them through play. The workshop taught me that to really understand a child is to pay attention to her calling to join in the fun, and when that invitation comes flying at you, offering the opportunity step into the child’s sacred space of the imagination, you say, “YES!”