The book that had the most impact on my thinking in 2009, was: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan.
It inspired me to chat with Nobel Laureates, last June, at a gathering in Sweden, about their play patterns as children. When these men talked about their work in the lab today and their childhood play patterns, it was the same conversation. They played passionately as children and the emergent questions and interests they had as children were still central in their work, albeit more evolved.
More recently, I started carrying a Flip Video recorder with me and interviewing friends and people I meet here and there. One friend, Mike, talked about his stamp collection — the excitement of opening the bag of envelope corners with colorful stamps affixed, the thrill of tracking on a map where each stamp was from and learning a little about each country, and the sense of possibility and curiosity about a larger world with so many different cultures. Mike went on to major in international relations and does global policy work today.
Matt Ruff was clear from the age of five that he wanted to be a novelist. He read voraciously, invented imaginary worlds and has confidently and successfully pursued these dreams as an adult.
Over the holidays, sitting with my mom and little sister, I began asking them what they remembered about my childhood play patterns. ”You were into everything,” my mom recalled, “You had science experiments going in the basement with mice, you baked and sold cookies door to door, you were constantly crafting and making things, and you started hosting dinner parties at the age of twelve.” My sister remembered the science fair projects, chess club, and all the making and building projects.
I remembered being positively obsessed with the notion of infinity and with Ann Cutler’s, Instant Math, and number patterns. My dad was a willing co-conspirator in any building project — one of the most memorable: building an incubator to hatch chicks. I had rock, stamp, and coin collections. I loved to bake and cook from a young age, and then found ways to sell my wares in the neighborhood — my mom always made me reimburse her for cost of goods.
Working with the kids next door, we produced circus performances. I was involved in every aspect of production, program development, marketing, logistics, and pricing, for both the entry fee and goods sold. We also organized summer crafting programs for young kids in the neighborhood. I loved co-creating these businesses — with neighbor kids I’m still very friendly with today (no, not through or because of FaceBook).
By age eleven, I wanted to learn how to bake bread and didn’t know anyone who could teach me. Trial and error and fifty loaves later, I could do it blindfolded and could easily modify a recipe successfully. If I’d done this in school, I’d have gotten a failing grade after the first few loaves. Thanks to my parents, I could try as often as I wanted and analyze and question what was going wrong and right each time.
I read voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction, and visited the library frequently. As a child, I created books. As a teenager, I wrote both prose and poetry and was the editor of my high school literary magazine.
I fearlessly rode my bicycle all over the northern Chicago suburbs — seriously, everywhere. My bicycle was my freedom. I sang with friends in high school and later in college.
I loved to travel and between baby-sitting and a waitress job that paid fifty cents an hour plus tips, I traveled all over the U.S. and to Panama, French Canada, and Europe, as a young teenager — on my own or with friends. I loved meeting weavers in rural Holland, drinking my first cappuccino at the age of fifteen in Panama City, and picking blueberries just outside of Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada. People fascinated me – I wanted to understand everything about creativity, intelligence, learning, and communication. I still do.
All of these themes are active today, both in my work and in my play. I taught (K-6, university) and worked as a children’s librarian the first decade of my career, spent the next two decades in high tech, where I’m still very active, and this last year, helped co-found a fresh sauces and puddings company, Abby’s Table. I serve on many Advisory Boards, both for profit and not for profit, covering a range of areas from technology to health to education to the environment.
How are your play patterns alive today, in what you do as an adult? Once you start writing, even a paragraph or two, about your childhood play patterns, you’ll see the power of play.
I hope you’ll take a few minutes to comment on your childhood play patterns here. What couldn’t you wait to do when you got home from school or on a Saturday? Does your work and play today share themes from your childhood play? I hope this new decade is a decade where play is celebrated and acknowledged as the key to passion, joy and a productive and fulfilling life.