Straight to the Mayhem

We have to go to the edge bitty, the place where the unknown starts and the known ends. We have to step to that very edge and then find our way back. Children will do this and so will grown-ups. Adults will make lists and plan ahead to think their way around or back from the edge. They will open bank accounts and look for bargains. They will go to the shops and buy bin organizers and find a way to put things in just the right place.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Children find their way back with running feet and shrieking laughter and thrilled whoops and hollers. Walking, tip toe, tip toe towards, then jump(!) run, run, run away. They do this, and we help them, so that when they are grown they KNOW resiliency. They KNOW how to find their way back from hardships and through the unknown.

Children find their way to the edge bitty through story. Through imagination. Through play.

And they find their way back with the same. Story. Imagination. Play. There is time for lists and storage bins later when they are grown, but for now these three things give them the practice sessions to explore and add all the body-mind connections for resiliency and regulation. Story. Imagination. Play.

I read a lot of tall tales and fairy tales to set up story, imagination, and play. I like Baba Yaga best for this, but there are so many other stories that throw out scary problems or challenges that the characters (and the children listening) have to work their way through or back from the edge.

A recent favorite that I have used for the last few years is Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer. I don’t read the whole book. It features a set of stories about a boy named Peter who daydreams his way through a series of elaborate imaginings. I use the story, Vanishing Cream mostly. It is such a perfect story in every way, no word, no image wasted. I will not tell you the whole story because I really want you to get the book. Either buy it (you can click on the image of the book below) or check it out at your library. I read this story to the 4 and 5-year olds towards the end of their school year and to the campers who attend our Tinkering camp.

It never misses. The children connect with it every time. The wide-eyed aghast-ness pops up at the vanishings — you can’t look away! “How could he,” they all wonder. There are the shocked sighs that collect and secret approval at the too-much tv and sugar. “Staying up past midnight?” and “So much television!” And they all make the leap to the knowing — knowing that the vanishing will no longer be something he wants when night truly falls. Then the breath goes in and is held with the inevitable flip-flop footed, slurpy, slimy appearance of a monster. Oh he’s gone and done it now they all shake their head. “Is this real,” one of them will ask and of course this must be asked. Is it real?

Okay. At each turn, as with any good Baba Yaga story or “oh they have gone and done it now” tall tale, there are opportunities for children to brainstorm their way through the problems presented. Then all this discussion grows through and around play. Their play will become the richer for it. Here is the best part — there is something that inevitably comes up and I call it the “Going Straight for the Mayhem” solution.

“If a slimy monster came to my house, I would get a knife from the kitchen and kill it dead,” one will shout out. Others will nod in agreement. That sounds like a good plan. This “straight to the mayhem” is a solution, sure it is, and I don’t tell them it isn’t, but here we are planting the seeds for different ways of thinking. “Well,” I offer for their consideration, “Would you really run around with a knife?” The monster is not real and they all know this and neither is the knife or the willingness to use it, but imagine if your information set from the beginning of your own story is about tearing a problem down, crushing it, destroying it, or to use something that is very much an adult-like pattern, to pretend like it is not happening at all? Resiliency is taught even though it is practiced through play.

Reading and talking about stories like this and the inevitable “straight to the mayhem” offerings gives us the opportunity to talk about other options.

Problem-solving and emotional intelligence (especially developing that all-important empathy factor) is all about imagining different angles, different outcomes, different paths that each of us could take. The knife solution is equivalent to “make it go away.” Isn’t it better to walk alongside and incorporate various solutions for the problems we encounter? Wouldn’t this provide additional experiential mind-body connections to arrive at that resilient stance?

Imaginary play is how children collect and practice story and the problem-solving components story brings. You will see the “straight to the mayhem” solution offered in response to “pretend I am…” This is a story ender. It is. This doesn’t mean that I stand around and say, “Oh, there goes that killing again.” Nope, this is one method of story problem-solving, but it is a one note. I am scaffolding children’s acquisition of play schema. We talk about how the play ends when we go straight to the mayhem.

This is what Peter and Ian McEwan gives us in the story, Vanishing Cream. He gives us another option. And then the story ends with the sun flooding the room, “Ah,” shout the children, “He was just daydreaming. He’s a daydreamer!” They all laugh, a bit uneasily to be sure, but now they have folded another story into their own and with it other options beside just the mayhem.

Dream on, dream on.