Back To The Play, Always

As each camper came in on Friday, they had something to say or ask about the play they had engaged in all week. There had been little adventures here and there, but with the addition of some face paint one of the campers brought in and generously handed over for public use and some really solid builders, things had shaped up for something Really, Really Big by Thursday.

Each week at our Tink camp sessions, a group of children ages 5 through 10, gather on a Monday and work their way through to adventures large and small in our yard and out in the woods. Each week is a different group, some siblings, some friends, some new to the school and our collection of loose parts walking in on Monday not knowing what to expect about this thing that their parents signed them up for. A few will repeat weeks bringing ideas started the week or weeks before, finishing up play themes or ideas that they might have had. This year, we had a big turnover and a lot of new children were introduced to the idea we are shaping for our camp which is the "etc. of summer" featuring moments of nothingness and "everythingness." We called it "Take Summer Back."

What pulls the campers together each week towards one thing or another are the play messages left by the campers the weeks before. Some are left unfinished and untended, like the bamboo raft started the first week that the older children wanted to use to float younger ones down the stream, and other play messages are picked up, for better or for worse, like the zombie apocalypse thread, hinted at by signs written in chalk and charcoal around the yard, "Zombies Stay Away" etc. There is always something a bit new, as one camper said last week, "The girls are building stores and the boys are building zones."

For the last two weeks, there was a bit of unfinished business with this Zombie play arc. In fact, the week before, the play featured a total destruction of any hint of construction at such a level that all of us, campers and staff, had to walk away and pretend like the whole thing didn't actually happen. It was a fantastic example of tearing down and up, emotionally and physically. Any hint of wall, zone, or fortress was left in a piled up, ready to bonfire it up way. The whole affair was only saved by the oh, there's the last minute of the day, time for the weekend, good-bye. And still, it was a good week in the way of the "etc. of summer" because sometimes the "etc." is a bunch of struggle.

This past week, a few campers who had lived through that tear down and apart were back. They wanted a do-over of what they saw as the best parts of that play arc, whatever those were. Then there were a few campers from that very first week. That first week featured a lot of collaborative building. The new children who arrived, wide-eyed as they do, had that bit of wonder while some campers who were back from the summer before had a "Let's get to it" mindset from the moment they walked in.

Their eyes lit up as they came in to see that horrible and grand pile-up of wreckage left from the week before. They saw the ropes and the pallets as opportunities and got right to work. The fort that you see in the photo above was essentially built by one get-to-it camper while the other campers built stores that traded in ink made from burnt wood and rainwater and fake flowers. A lot of time was spent whittling. Each store had a sign and one had a complicated rope delivery system from its ink/food manufacturing area in the back of the yard to the Teahouse in the front of the yard. The great lengths of rope that had been used for unwinnable tug of wars and crates used as wreckable towers were put to constructive use for the delivery system and countertops. Wrecking things were not going to be a thing for the week, but I hadn't caught up with the program. In fact, I had hedged my bets and bought two watermelons to explode and when I suggested catapults, a vital etc. of summer from the week before, the children looked at me and wondered what useless planet I had jetted in from and when I would clear out and let them get back to work. 

The thing that really helped the whole play sing is that the week's participants also included a 15-year old volunteer (a former student), working for community service hours (something all high schoolers must complete for graduation) armed with an iphone and some really solid skills in Final Cut Pro. He offered to film the play arc on Thursday and edit the footage into a movie assuring me that there would be liberal use of slow motion and that he would edit it down to 5 minutes. Well, that little bit of shininess sealed the deal.

The children were shown the first cut of their play on Friday morning and we used it to work out the details of the play for Friday. The comments that the campers threw out upon arrival like "There weren't enough zombies" and "I got punched in the stomach" and "They wouldn't die when I bit them" all became clear when they watched the footage. The children regrouped and re-ruled the play and got to it until it fell apart again. 

Look, in the way of confessions -- I have to go on the record to say that my personal goal for the camps and even for the nursery school program is a pay-it-forward kind of thing to build future play experts in the children. It is a good and forward-thinking legacy, IMO, and a mission for me, so when I can, I make sure to make certain things evident so that these children know what's what in play. Here are some things I shared with them when things fell apart on Friday.

Intense, full mind and body, action-packed play with large groups of marauding children can be sustained for 30 to 45-minutes before there is a fall-apart moment. At that point, there has to be a renegotiation of the play. The play can be abandoned, reshaped, or redefined. Children in the wild will get to this independently, but we are not in the wild and the children look around and can plainly see that. This is why truly child-led play can be problematic for some adults and even for some children, I tell them. They nod, they know, they have been there and done that. I teach them how to hold a meeting so that they can get back to the play.

The warring factions of zombies and the humans needed to meet on common ground, they are tired of other people and are frustrated about how no one is staying dead and of getting poked by the weapons. They want more ways to trap and heal. They want buy-in from other people -- each child knows that she or he is doing things right and mostly everyone else is wrong. I tell the zombies and humans to name two spokespeople for each team. They need to meet as a team and come up with three suggestions each for how the other team could make the play better and one thing their team will do for the other to make the play better.

Once they came up with these points, they had to come together and listen to each other, taking turns with each point and establishing the "agree-to-agree." We had to work to make sure that the three points were not framed in a way that was about what other people were doing wrong before, but were about what they could do to make things better moving forward. That final offering about what the team itself could do to make things better was offered as a healing gesture so that it didn't feel like a bunch of you, you, you. Our filmmaker filmed this, but we couldn't use the footage because names were named and that is against our image release policy. We reenacted the handshake bit which you will see at the end of the second movie for the camera because the children felt that was important enough to document.

The representatives from the zombie horde and the human survivors meet and work out new rules for the play.

The representatives from the zombie horde and the human survivors meet and work out new rules for the play.

Well, this all worked and worked well. Sometimes things like this are about magic. The magic of the group or the magic that this movie documentation opportunity brought them. It could have been because the Republican National Convention was held last week and that was the talk of the parents, staff, and campers each morning at drop off and let's face it, that convention featured quite a lot of talk from people who have forgotten how to play with others. There was not a lot of "we" and way too much of the "trouble with them" in the nominated candidate's speech and this played into how I taught the children to come together on Friday.

Once they did, the play soared again. We could all leave at the end of the day with a feeling of accomplishment. Next week, will be the last week of camp for the summer. I don't know what to expect except that for sure, we will go back to the play. Always.

Tink2016 Session IV campers play out their version of the zombie apocalypse. Shot and edited by a TPCNS alumnus, now 15-years old.

Following the first play session, the children continued the story they developed about the zombie invasion. At a point midway in the play, we regrouped to work out the things that were and were not working. They sent emissaries from each team and figured out to make it better and the battle continued.

A special shout out to Opinel knives ( We purchased four of their teaching knives for the children to use and we saw some stellar whittling. If you are in the market for a whittling knife, do not pass go or get distracted by the Swiss Army knives and their gadgets, visit the Opinel site and get yourself some solid whittling tools.