Playing For Keeps Intentionally

Does your family intentionally play together? How do you invite family members to join you? Is it possible to both remain engaged in play and be connected emotionally when others tip over into fear or rage? This is an area I looked for support to understand when my son was younger, especially in partnership with my spouse. 

When my husband, my son & I participate in a weekend play workshop in Portland, Oregon, Kri, the organizer of the workshop invited us to join in the Play After Play* experience. I was thrilled! 

At the Play after Play Theater, the husband-and-wife acting team, Marc Otto and Melanya Helene, performed a 20-minute show based on a folk tale, with just a few props and traditional songs. 

"The play will begin, and then the play will end," Melanya said. "That is the time for wild applause." 

Then came the "after" part of Play after Play: playtime. 

My family gathered with other families filled with anticipation around the tumbling mats where Marc, Melanya, and Kri each invited a child into the middle of the circle to "play" with them. They got down on the floor with the kids, mimicked their movements, rolled and flipped, tumbled and swayed, giving piggyback rides and frolicking like kittens. When they clapped twice, it was another child's turn. 

Let's pause for a moment to look at research about mirror-neurons and mimicry. The mirroring system includes a mechanism that helps the brain record the difference between seeing and acting. Research reveals some neurons fire more during action and others fire more during observation. These same cells are proposed to help us distinguish between the self and others. 

Mimicry reflects social cues and helps humans’ bond; we're primed in one part of our brain to like those who mimic us. Research proposes that the mirror systems of two people can "sync up" neurologically. In other words, brains resonate with each other as they interact, with one person's mirror system reflecting the changes in the other. No wonder Original Play models mimicry! 

There are social connection systems for autistic children that don't function neurotypically; however, current research appears to reveal that autistic children's mirroring systems do function normally. The hope is that holding a compassionate understanding of the mirror system will lead to a better understanding of emotional difficulties. If mirroring develops as we learn, perhaps triggering mirroring can teach and maximize what the children do have already in place. It's very likely then that giving children the experience of being mirrored will help support the social systems that are not as functional for children on the spectrum. 

Now, back to my story,  as we watch those playing on the mats, Kri turned, crouched on the mat, and caught Rylan's eye with a smile as she invited him with first a tap of her hand on the mat, followed with an extended open hand to join her. Rylan hesitated just a moment, glancing at me for reassurance and when I nodded with a smile, he scampered onto the mat with the fluid movements of a big cheetah. 

Kri crouched, mimicking his every move as they made wide circles facing one another. Rylan sprang forward and Kri sprang to meet him mid-air. She caught Rylan's body with an open arm, flipped him over her back using an open hand to catch and cradle his head, as he rolled onto the mat. 

The play was on - springing, rolling, and tumbling, the two cavorted with resonant energy. Hearing two claps from her hands, Rylan scampered off the mat into my waiting arms. With bright eyes, a flushed face, and wide smile, he whispered, "will I get to do it again?" My heart soared as I took in his delight. 

After every child had a turn, Kri motioned everyone to gather close together in the center of the mats. She asked the children, "Did Marc, Melanya, or Kri kick?" "Noooo." the children answer in union. "No," she agreed, "kicking is not play." "Did Marc, Melanya, or Kri grab?" "Nooo." was the resounding answer and Kri agreed, "No, grabbing is not play." "Did Marc, Melanya, or Kri hurt or tickle anyone?" "No" the children called out and Kri once again agreed, "No, hurting or tickling is not play." 

"Play is when everyone is safe, taking care of each other. If the play isn't safe then it's okay to stop and say, that isn't play." Kri asked the children and their families. "Now, would you like to play some more?" The children exclaimed, "Yes!" with great enthusiasm, and whole family groups were invited to join in, family by family, into the circle of play. 

As I watched the families join in, supported by the facilitators, I saw with greater clarity 3 skills-sets all intertwined. Emotions, Physical skills, (how to handle self and keep people safe, and Grace. 

Original play is an incredible discipline. Nothing is random. Body, shoulders, fingers, and head - everything is an art as if doing tai chi. 

Original Play only occurs when I step outside all the categories I live in. We aren't categories, facilitator, father, mother, sister, son, we're playmates! By paying close attention to being playmates we become really present, naturally offering curiosity, attunement and resonance to one another. 

My husband, Richard has enjoyed engaging with our son, Rylan, since he was born. Floor time together was a natural fit for them over the years as Rylan grew and wanted more physical push and pull play time. 

When our family was invited onto the mat, Rylan dove toward his dad with hard, forceful energy. Richard didn't back up, instead, he moved toward him, and embraced him with loving open arms to roll and tumble on the mat with Marc joining right into the fray with glee. 

Kri and Melanya greeted me with smiles and giggles, they rocked into my body, and gently pushed me into the pile of fun. With bumble hugs and touch and play that threatened no one, the environment felt incredibly safe and warm. 

This experience gave Rylan a chance to step out of habitually being a fighter, and it gave Richard and myself a chance to step out of habitually leading the direction of our interactions. We got to experience intentionally mimicking and responding with love at any point of attack and there was no attack, instead there was play. Play where people didn't know they were different from each other. Play with lots of giggles, attunement and resonance. 

Original Play is about modeling a choice in the world. It's about giving and receiving love in your touch, and resonance with all of your being. The training shortens the difference between experiencing pain and giving love. We, as a family, truly discovered the magic of Original Play in community! 

Receiving the gift of experiencing the physical skills (how to handle self and keep people safe) in community, with all different sizes and shapes of people, was truly an "out of the box" kind of experience that opened me up to all kinds of spontaneous possibilities. Rather than shushing my child and staying focused on my tasks, I learned to recognize any of his angry outbursts the possibility for a creative connection that leads us to play. That is transformation in action!


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