Finding a shared language through play

Everyone is tired. Tired of managing the new situations and new conditions and new worries and new things we need to adjust to. Something new every week, it has seemed, for a solid 20 months in a row.

Two Upstream Arts participants sitting down outside. One is raising their hands to the sky while the other looks on.This is what the Leadership Team of Upstream Arts (myself, Julie, and Bree) keeps coming back to nearly every time we talk about the state of our Upstream community, our Teaching Artists and staff, our people…ourselves.

Our next thought is, Where and how can we make sure to infuse some joy?   

Recently, Julie and I were presented with a yet another new reality to which we had to adjust. The group home where Caleb has lived for 12 years, since he was 18, was being shuttered due to the industry wide crisis of staffing shortages, and he would be moving to a different group home within a week.

New house. New staff. New roommates. So many things in all this new worry us, not the least of which is training new staff to care for Caleb’s many significant medical needs, for his safety.

 Yet, my first thought was:  Who is going to play with Caleb? 

I’m really asking: Who is going to communicate with Caleb?

Our entire communicative relationship with Caleb, how we visit, how we socialize, catch up, check in, negotiate, converse, is a living example of the work of Upstream Arts.

Social interaction for Caleb is all about play, because play for Caleb almost always contains the element of a back and forth exchange. Play must be structured in the form of a conversation. I do something, you do something, back and forth, and so on. It’s play and socializing all rolled into one.

When Julie and I facilitate trainings we speak of play as a matter of practicing creativity, and that creativity is taking what you have in front of you, some familiar routine, and changing one thing to create a new routine, a new meaning, a new interpretation of something familiar.

Upstream Arts applies this idea of creativity to how we communicate. We use the familiar structure of a back and forth exchange of ideas, the structure of a conversation, but before we can change something about that familiar pattern, we need a shared language. If that shared language is not spoken, if it doesn’t involve words (as we generally think of words), then we need to create a new shared language.

In Upstream activities we change the exchange of words to an exchange of rhythms on a drum, or to an exchange of lines of color on a page.

Here’s a story from class that demonstrates the power in this kind of creative exchange, the power of recognition:

In one of the classes that I teach each week, a young student always focuses his eyes up front on the actions of the our Teaching Artists. Though we gently invite him into the action, he is hesitant to join.

Image of a small child, arms stretched out, head slightly tilted framed by colorful paintings at the top and bottom of the image.His attention keeps a rapt focus, though.

He notices when we play drums in unison. He remains keenly observant when we offer a choice of Up, Down, or To the Side to show us how he is feeling.

 He quietly chooses Up.

Later, he comes up in front of the class with me, and stands motionless as I move first close to him, and then farther away, inviting him to notice the difference of how that makes him feel, and inviting him make a similar choice. He reaches out his hands, takes hold of mine, and moves them back and forth, first closer to me, then closer to him. A curious smile of joy grows to envelop his cheeks, his eyes, his whole being.

He is finding joy in our moments together, in our play. We are finding connection, finding a shared language within the familiar structure of a conversation, a back and forth exchange.

Closer, and farther away.

Next class we’ll do up and down. Maybe crooked and curvy, or fast and slow. We’ll mix and match these choices together, exploring how the contrasting qualities feel in our bodies. Then, we’ll use the same qualities to collaborate on a painting.

Red, orange and yellow curves and shapes cover a white, horizontal canvas looping and seemingly dancing across this painting.Do you want your red curve to be close,  or far away from someone else’s yellow squiggle?

 It’s difficult to define what play is, but for us, every moment of communication is a form of play, and an opportunity to discover meaning in our actions and expressions. Giving and receiving, an ordering of actions taken, a familiar structure from which we derive meaning, this is the base form through which we build play.

Activities based on the familiar routines and patterns are practiced with a spark of creativity, and in every small moment, each exchange, we uncover the joy found in connection. The practice of play is the needed ingredient to our recipe for building relationships. The spice is curiosity.

Social skills are not learned, so much as they are experienced, and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is not just about communicating needs. It’s about the joy found in the small moments of exchange, when we let go of preconceived notions of how communication should look, and FEEL something visceral.

That’s when we learn from experiences. That’s when we develop positive relationships. 

Play is the concrete we lay in the cracks of our relationships, to find common ground and bond community together.

Matt Guidry