The Work of Child’s Play - Jocelyn Greene

It is a rainy day in Brooklyn, but we are keeping warm and dry in the studio of our Fairy Tale Theater class. We’ve created obstacle courses through the forest and left a trail of breadcrumbs, we’ve done a deep relaxation while making an orchestra of sounds that we might hear in the woods, we’ve “built” the witch’s gingerbread house using the most tempting ingredients and we’ve become woodland creatures with magical powers to protect our heroes: Hansel and Gretel. A guitar player in the room underscores our adventures, providing either a robust beat or a lyrical track depending on the exercise.

Bodies are moving freely, kids are stretching into characters. They are expanding the range of their own emotions, unleashed by this adventure. Professional actors might call it “warming up” – I think of it as “child’s play”.

Today we are working on “Yes! And…” – a cornerstone of improvisation that allows for exciting collaborations and story-building. To celebrate another person’s contribution and then add onto it is such a simple and yet totally complex skill. “Yes! And…” is a muscle, that if really strong, will likely help these children in their personal and academic journeys for years to come.

The story is only a road map – and we use it to dive deep into our creation. Our breadcrumbs have rainbow sparkles that glow, our birds speak in a magical language of hints and warnings, we even have to dive into the ocean to get to the woods.  The vibrations of the room change with their imaginings, and I am no longer “teaching” – we are all spirited away on a current of play.

The need to tell one another a story exerts a tremendous pull among children, powerful enough to overcome shyness and the fear of the unknown.

— Vivian Gussin Paley The Importance of Fantasy Play

When it is time to make up our own version of Hansel and Gretel, we invite the magical “As If” into the room. “As If” allows for a true outside the box thinking: A kind of plasticity that child psychologists and neurobiologists hail as the miracle of imagination.

This is the work of Child’s Play: creating pathways for creativity and then venturing boldly down them. When kids engage in dramatic play, they are far from the stress of “getting it right”, far from the multiple-choice grid, far from the screens.

While so much is still unknown and unquantifiable about the relationship between imagination and achievement, it seems clear that the innovators of today are keenly pushing limits and bravely creative. If I had a crystal ball, I might look into the future and see the seeds of what we are sowing here at work in these children’s lives as young adults. I might see them thriving, with an unshakable sense of self and an adventurous spirit. They would be risk-takers, they would be empathic, and their sense of boundless possibility would never leave them. What I do get to see in these rooms I work in, is an increase in JOY as the children push beyond the bounds of the predictable and reach for something bigger, more magical.

Imagination is the common thread that we pull on for all the students of Child’s Play NY – it is the same for the 4-year-old child in a Mini Musical class, the 8 year old in Annie or the 14-year-old in a production of Hamlet. As they move through the program the skills get more specialized: Maybe there is a music director, a movement choreographer comes in to teach some sword fighting, lines are memorized or the children learn about scansion and text analysis…but the core of our work – regardless of the age - is in making believe. “As If” I was venturing down a path in the dark woods, “As If” I was escaping an orphanage, “As If” I was visited by a ghost who might be my father. Living inside these characters, kids are personalizing remarkable journeys. On the most basic level – this is sheer fun. At its most lofty, the kids are building empathy for the human experience.

Play…is a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

— NYT, 2008, “Taking Play Seriously”

Today, in our re-telling of this story, we had 5 witches, 1 bird and one stepmother. There was a candy marsh, statues that came to life, a magical oven that made the witches “kind” and an epic rescue mission. We created something that avant-guard European theater and NYC’s finest improve troupes would have been proud to showcase. But it was just for us.

The kids are working out their world through these games. We turn the witch’s cackle into a piece of music, we pretend our bodies are made of clay and mold our new selves, we find a gibberish language to express our elation at being saved, we freeze-dance our way out of the woods back into our cozy beds and to our good-bye circle. An incredible sense of ownership passes through the children. They are proud of what they created, who they became, and how they worked together.  They walk out of the class into the rainy world with an air of confidence and exuberance…and to this I say, “Yes! And…”

Jocelyn Greene is an actor, director and educator. She founded Child’s Play NY in 2009 and has taught hundreds of children through the program in NYC schools and in the Brooklyn studios. Time Out New York Kids yearly recognizes Child’s Play NY as an exceptional theater program for classes, camps and parties. Packer Collegiate, Avenues the World School, Berkeley Carroll School, Williamsburg Northside are among the schools in which she teaches. Jocelyn holds an MFA in Acting from NYU and a BA in English Literature from Wesleyan University. She is a member of Actors Equity and has, performed across the country and off-Broadway.  She lives in Brooklyn with her actor-husband and their three-year old son.

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