Just Play

“I didn’t paint the morning after her visit. I drew. Little caricatures, cartoon figures really. Sitting. Running. Walking. Swimming. Fast, fast, fast. No time for me to think. Skiing. Bicycling. Dancing.

Just play, Laine had advised. So I tried to play. I worked at playing, determined to keep trying until I could play without having to work.”

When I came to this spot in Robin Black’s Life Drawing last night I had to stop reading and put the book down. Work at play?

Gus, a  middle-aged artist who’s dealing with her father’s dementia and the fallout from her own infidelity, finds comfort in her painting. Everything she paints, the chairs, the walls, every brick, is alive — everything except the people. She even says she thinks she might be missing the “life-drawing gene.”

She’s become cautious since her days of “preaching the virtues of risk and of failure…” She says that mistakes have “lost their appeal.”

Like Gus, I’ve known that cautious feeling. I too have “preached the virtues of risk and failure” on my blogs and to my students.

Every day I see that I am one of those who has to “work at play.” But I know that when I finally get to play without work, that’s when the work will come alive.

Now I will savor the rest of Life Drawing as I feel a kindred spirit in Gus, and a true appreciation for the author, Robin Black, who brings these characters, with their real-life issues alive on the page.

(Read The Rumpus interview with Robin Black)


 

I’m looking for inspirational women! Do you know anyone who incorporates play into their life? Someone who has a 9 to 5 job or family obligations… but still finds time to incorporate creative play into their life? Please email me at catherine (at) gmail (dot) com.

Interview with Laurie McMillan

Laurie McMillan

Laurie McMillan

Some people say that in one day children laugh up to ten times more than adults. Whether or not this is true, we can all agree that laughter makes you feel good. Have you always had a sense of humor or do you make a conscious effort to bring humor to your daily life?

I have definitely always had a sense of humor; I love to be around funny people, and my husband and my two kids make me laugh on a daily basis. They all say I’m the least funny one in the family.

My dad loved to tease and joke around when I was growing up, so I’m very comfortable with silliness and physical humor. Sometimes life feels like one long to-do list, and acting like a goofball helps me break out of that daily grind. Also, as a teacher, it’s important that I make my classes entertaining so our brains are engaged. Humor is one way to make that happen.

It’s tough to say how much of a conscious effort I make to bring humor to my daily life. It’s definitely there! But it’s not something I always think about.

Tell us a little about your WinkyFace videos. I understand your original intent was to demonstrate gender trends on YouTube… but the videos seem to have taken on a life of their own. What do future do you see for them? Do you have any other videos in the works?

WinkyFace is the YouTube channel I co-developed with my colleague and friend Lindsey Wotanis. We do parodies of faculty life, parody interviews with fictional characters, and assorted behind-the-scenes videos. We have had a LOT of fun planning and producing the videos, and we have learned a lot. We didn’t plan on doing the channel forever, but we don’t have a definite endpoint in mind either. We have a lot of videos that are either scripted or brainstormed, so I see us sticking with the work for awhile still. It may be tough to let it go!

Although I do a lot of feminist research, WinkyFace was never focused on gender trends. Lindsey and I developed the channel because we saw a need for our students to learn social media, and we know that the only way we can teach our students is if we ourselves are using the media. YouTube is the ideal challenge because a) it’s possible to make money (so it will seem like a good option to students), b) it involves multimedia so we’d be learning a lot of skills all at once, and c) it involves media presence across platforms, so we would need to learn instagram and twitter if we were to do YouTube.

Learning how to YouTube successfully was our first goal, and the content was secondary.

We brainstormed a few ideas. I really wanted my kids to get involved because it would be easier for them to reach an audience on YouTube than for me to do so, and I figured they’d enjoy making some money. But they weren’t interested, so Lindsey and I decided we would do it ourselves. And we made the content fun so that we’d get a kick out of doing it!

Once we decided on a focus, we also developed a behind-the-scenes blog titled Margin Notes. That might be where you noted our interest in gender issues. Because I had already done a YouTube channel, I was familiar with the inappropriate ways people talked to me (or about me) when leaving comments on my videos. Also, Lindsey and I published research analyzing the comments on Jenna Marbles’ videos versus Ryan Higa’s. The difference is exactly what you’d expect, but it’s still overwhelming and disheartening when you see the numbers. At any rate, before we even began putting out videos, we spent some time thinking about all the dynamics, and we blogged about that sort of thing over several posts.Laurie

Do you have a daily writing regimen? Are you an early riser or do you burn the midnight oil?

I should have a [sailing <–somehow, I wrote “sailing” instead of “daily,” and now I’m thinking how lovely it would be to have a sailing writing regimen!] daily writing regimen, but I don’t.

I’m an early riser. At different times in my life, I had different habits, but now my entire household is moving between 5:00 and 6:00am. I found out that my brain tends to work better in the morning than at night when I was playing Words with Friends and Scramble. I was almost unbeatable when playing in the morning! At night, I was terrible.

But I still write at night at times anyhow, because sometimes that’s the only way to get the job done.

What is your favorite genre to read? To write? What are you reading now?

I like to read in a lot of genres, but fiction is probably #1. I recently finished The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I also reread The Joy Luck Club for my book club, and I was so glad I did. The writing is awesome, the stories are awesome. I read a lot of light fiction (mysteries, chick lit, young adult fiction, whatever). I’m not a snob in any way when it comes to reading.

This may seem nerdy, but I like to write serious research because it makes my brain work really hard. The whole process of analyzing material to really show something appeals to me, and it takes unbelievable effort to organize ideas and spell things out in a way that will make sense to readers (without them falling asleep). I learn a lot every time I do that kind of writing.

I love poetry, too–both reading it and writing it. But it’s less of an everyday habit except when it intersects with my teaching.

Recent studies have shown that as adults play helps us manage chronic pain, reduce stress, build memory, and encourage creativity. Have you found this to be true for you and for those around you?

I think these studies are right on, but I regularly turn into a big ball of stress, so I’m not at the point of fully modeling this ideal. That being said, even moments of goofiness help bring me perspective, and I certain kinds of play can be meditative. I recently started doing zentangles (a meditative practice that involves drawing patterns on small squares of paper), and that kind of play feels completely different from the shenanigans that make me laugh when working on videos. While the zentangles give me space from the rest of the world in some ways, the videos are always about engaging the world (or at least a tiny segment of it!). Both types of play make things better!


For more of Dr. Laurie McMillan’s WinkyFace fun follow here on Youtube, Facebook, her blog, or on Twitter or Instagram!

If you (or someone you know) has made it a priority to incorporate creative play into daily life, I’d love to talk. Please contact me at catherine.shefski(at)gmail.com.

Interview with Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Jenny, many of us played with hoola hoops when we were younger. How old were you when you first started out? What was it about hooping that kept you taking it to the next level?

It’s funny, but I don’t remember hula hooping at all as a child. We grew up in the woods, and our closest neighbors were about a mile or so away, so my sister and I did a lot of creative things. We created circuses, made up games in the woods, and once I tried making a pop up restaurant in my bedroom where I made my parents pay for food they had already purchased! I’m sure there was a hoop around as part of one of our circuses, but I really don’t remember playing with it as it was intended. I was 39 years old when I first picked up a hoop and was determined to keep it spinning. My sister introduced me to it by bringing a hoop making kit with her the weekend she visited for my wedding. There are a number of different things that have kept me engaged and excited about hooping. At first it was just sheer determination and the old competitive spirit of sisterhood. My sister could hoop beautifully. Why couldn’t I keep it going? I spent days out in my backyard, practicing. Eventually something clicked and my body said, “Yep. This is it.” I spent years up in my head. It felt really good to have my body speak for a change. I was always the awkward kid growing up – the one that was picked last for the team in gym class, so suddenly having a creative outlet that was also athletic and made me feel graceful instead of clumsy has kept me engaged. One of the things that continues to keep me going with hooping is the playful aspect of it. It’s a toy! So if I make a “mistake” I turn it into a new move, or I laugh it off and continue. There have been a lot of lessons with hooping.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “flow” recently when it comes to sports and the arts. It seems to me that your hooping is a great example of flow – total focus and being in the moment. Do you agree? Do you get the same feeling from your writing?

Mmm, yes, flow. I think the word gets used in a number of different ways. For me there’s the flow of linking moves together with hooping and generating a personal style. There’s a lot of talk about flow in the hooping community. Hoopers who have learned the basics and want to level up sometimes get uptight about “finding flow,” because they feel like they aren’t skilling up quickly enough. Flow happens in a sort of quiet way, I think. It’s subtle. You keep practicing at a thing you’re passionate about (writing, hooping, cooking), and suddenly and without much notice you have developed a style. My husband talks a lot about  Mise en Place. It’s a cooking term that means you have all your ingredients ready and are capable of putting together a delicious meal. I think this applies to most art. Having enough technique and craft to develop style.

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Then there’s the kind of flow that happens where you are focused and in the moment, which you mentioned. That type of flow, to me, is a sort of meditative state. There are moments of this for me with hooping, especially when I am alone. I don’t feel that kind of flow while I’m teaching, or performing, or when I’m working on some off-body four hoop move. Once I’ve figured out the move and can incorporate it into the other type of flow, well then I might reach that sort of nirvana “brain shutoff”. It’s interesting now that I think of it how the two types of flow work together. It’s hard to get the meditative state of flow while you’re learning to master waist hooping, but once you get it, the brain chatter stops, and it’s a blissful place to be.

What is your typical daily routine? Do you practicing hooping every day? Are you an early-riser writer?

I’m up at 5:30, and I write for an hour. I’ve kept journals for years. If I’m working on a poem that usually happens in the morning as well. I read after that for a bit, usually until 7 a.m. Hoop practice during the spring, summer, and early fall happens in the morning as well, usually after I answer emails and make a list for the day. I spend at least an hour in practice, and it’s usually at the local park. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the neighborhood this way. When the winter months hit, I practice indoors.

Your life seems to be full of play and creativity. We’re learning that flow, play and creativity are important for our health as we age. What advice would you give someone who is stuck in a stressful job and busy schedule?

I had parents that encouraged creativity, and I think that made a big influence on how I live my life. My suggestion for anyone struggling with stress is to find a creative outlet that speaks to you and moonlight from your stressful job in discovery. Theatre bug? Go audition for a local theatre or offer your help backstage. Musical itch? Take lessons. Everyone has busy schedules and the key is making time for that moonlighting. It doesn’t have to be a lot. An hour a day, or a half hour if you’re really crunched. I think anything that you’re curious about is a good place to start.

Hooping has had a lot of benefits for me, some of them being an increased spatial awareness, better eye/hand coordination, an increase in self-esteem, a boost in happiness, and then all the physical bonuses too. I’m stronger now at 45 than I was at 17. I hope to keep this up for as long as I can! Creativity is good for the brain – your brain develops new neural pathways as you skill up in an art form. This is super-beneficial as you age. I just finished teacher training with the Center for Creative Aging. There are a lot of studies that show that play and creativity have positive effects on health and well being.

You’re a teacher also. Can you tell us about one or two of your most rewarding teaching experiences?

It’s endlessly rewarding. There have been many moments of discovery and magic. I once took a group of 4th grade students outside so we could focus on the sense of sound, and they closed their eyes as I read a poem about snow. It was October. When they opened their eyes, it was snowing. They begged me to read again so they’d get a snow day! There was a teenage boy who slept through class but stayed awake when I visited to write a poem about his sister. It was like he was waiting for me to arrive so he could have the permission to write it. There was a school board meeting I attended with high school students. All those men in suits were so intimidating! They held all the cards, you know? They made all the decisions. One of the students read a poem for them called “Bomb in my Bookbag.” The “bomb” was her bible. I’ll never forget her bravery. I think every moment someone puts their trust in me to share their thoughts, or to try out a hoop, or share a life story, is rewarding. Living is rewarding. Getting to know other people is one of the best things in life, in my opinion. Students are always teaching me new things.

What’s next for you? Do you have another creative project in the works?

There’s always something going on around here. There are a string of performances I’m giving in the next couple of months, so I’m rehearsing a lot. I’ve finally committed to taking an improv class with the Philadelphia Improv Theater, and I’m excited about how what I learn there will inform the other things I do. I’m teaching a Hoop Revolution class at a local yoga studio – a quieter, slower introduction to hooping, and a Hoop Yourself Fabulous series that starts next week, which is a higher energy hoop class. In the evenings, since it’s hockey season, I will be writing. One of the things I love about the later fall is that things slow down a bit and I have time to reflect on what I’ve done and where and how creative ideas overlap. Hooping and poetry do overlap, and that’s a combination that has been fascinating to me for a few years. The most interesting exploration to me so far was a group hoop/theatre performance I created called, “O, Jabberwocky.” I’m working on developing a hooping and literacy curriculum that I can take to schools. That’s next. My lists are long, and time is of the essence!


Jenny Hill is a certified hoop fitness and dance instructor as well as a poet, actor and arts educator. Visit her online at Acts of Jennius and be sure to follow her on Facebook!

If you (or someone you know) has made it a priority to incorporate creative play into daily life, I’d love to talk. Please contact me at catherine.shefski(at)gmail.com.

Fearless Creativity

Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, has presented a terrific TED Talk on the topic of creativity and play. He opens his presentation with an exercise from Bob McKim, creativity researcher and leader of the Stanford Design Program. Tim asks his audience to pick up their pen and paper and sketch the person sitting next to them. There are giggles from the audience before they even start to draw.

When he tells them to put their paper down after thirty seconds, the audience reacts just as we would expect. They laugh. They are embarrassed.  And they apologize for themselves! Every time he’s had an audience perform that exercise they reacted the same way.

As adults many of us fear the judgement of our peers. When I did my Go Play Project in 2012, the most common comment I heard from friends was “I could never do anything like that.”

My goal was to learn and perform as many pieces in one year as I could. Once I got over the fear of posting these recordings “in the raw” I became more adventurous in my choice of repertoire. I learned new pieces quickly, sometimes only hours before turning on the recorder.

But, surprisingly, the real benefit of that Project, was finally finding the courage to step away from the piano bench and explore avenues of creativity – writing and drawing.

Tim talks about how many businesses are beginning to realize the importance of play, trust, and friendship in the workplace. A sense of trust and relaxation in the workplace encourages the employees to think creatively without fear of judgement.

Let’s use our Go Play Projects to create fearlessly and find out what happens when that creativity spills out into other areas of our lives. I’d love to hear from you about your next Go Play Project!

 

Risk and Play

As a kid I remember how much fun I had exploring the partially built houses in our development. After the construction workers left for the day my best friend and I would climb over boards and cinder blocks to play house. Around that time my younger brothers and their friends would go on “hikes” through the fields and and along the railroad tracks next to the river. They were just little kids but they came home with stories of snakes and such. My husband tells me about the how he wandered the city at age ten, alone.

The Land is a playground unlike any other. Located in North Wales, this patch of land looks like it could be a trash heap. With piles of tires, old mattresses, puddles, and wooden pallets it is heaven to the exploring child. How things have changed that in this day of micromanaging our children, we have to build such a lot where children are free to engage in risky play.

Peter Gray, author of the blog “Freedom to Learn” has written extensively about risky play. He says we adults do a great disservice to children by managing their play.

We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns.  Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways.  In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.

Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim identifies the most important element of risky play is “exploring alone.” As adults we can recapture that sense of adventure by taking on our own projects.

I don’t think I’ll be exploring any construction sites, but I can pick out a new box of charcoal and a big pad of newsprint. I can scribble or copy or draw from life. It can get messy. Is it risky? Sure it is…. but that’s the topic of another blog post.

Back in the Saddle

Eighteen months ago I finished the last recording of my 2012 Go Play Project where I recorded one piano piece every Sunday night for a year. Since then I’ve downsized considerably, sold two houses, moved, and started a new job.

However there was one unexpected consequence from my year at the piano. I began to wonder if my whole piano playing intensive was a bad idea – a project better left for someone else. After all I had finished out the year with the music of Medtner and Scriabin, beautiful works that I had only recently been introduced to.

But something had happened that I was reluctant to blog about.  Hard to believe, but I had actually developed an aversion to the sound of the piano. Yes. It’s true. After blogging about piano playing, performance, accompanying, teaching, and more teaching, and then practicing every week for a year….I craved silence.

I boxed up all my music. Gave my “teaching” music to a new teacher in town.

And then I sold my piano.

This was major.

I started piano at age 8 and played almost every day until my late twenties. Even after that, I couldn’t imagine not living with a piano. Not being able to sit down whenever I wanted to and read through Chopin and Beethoven. Sometimes practicing was more intense. Other times an evening of sight-reading would be enough.

Now there was nothing.

But wait. There was life after piano. I started remembering the things that I loved to do when I didn’t “have to” practice. The idea of “reinvention” became very appealing. I didn’t have to be Cathy, the piano teacher, any more. I toyed with the idea of going into real estate. I took a class in medical terminology. I began to feel like a regular person.

And I wrote. I completed two screenplays during the past two years. One is in very competent Hollywood hands right now. The other is waiting for a re-write.

I’ve also been itching to pick up a pencil and draw again. For some reason drawing was always saved for a special occasion when I was growing up. It was a treat to pull out paper and crayons.

And so that brings me to today. Inspired by my friend, Judy Leeson Polstra, who’s started her own “Go Play Project” on the piano, I’ve decided to jump back on the horse (please check out Devon Combs’s Beyond The Arena site as she kindly let me use her image for this post). I’m going to try my hand at another “GPP.” This time I’m going to sketch a little illustration every day for the month of August. It’s not much and, to any artist, it’s a joke. But to someone like me who’s not even a doodler, this will be a challenge.

Follow along as I post each day. And jump in any time with your own “Go Play Project.” I’d love to hear about it. As Judy said to me, “Less Fear. More Fun. That’s what this should be all about.