I am writing from Haiti, but my heavy heart is back in New England. I have been thinking about you and all of those in our Playmaker community who are heading back to work this morning in the wake of Friday’s heartbreaking and incomprehensible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
A number of you have contacted our team, wondering what Life is good Playmakers may be doing to help the Newtown community. I’d like to provide you with a brief update on our current involvement, as well as some thoughts as to how Playmakers may be involved in supporting the Newtown community in the future. I also want to leave you with some words about responding effectively to the children in your care as well as taking care of yourself through this emotionally difficult time.
First, it’s important to note that the Life is good Playmakers are not designed to be an emergency response program. This role is reserved for first responders (inculding police, medical, clergy, and crisis response teams). First responders lead the way during the “Safety and Stabilization” phase of response. This phase of response can last anywhere between 72 hours and several months. That being said, clinicians from Family and Children’s Aid in Danbury, CT (FCA) have been on the scene since Friday. For several years, FCA has been among our closest and most important partners. A great many members of the highly talented FCA team are certified Life is good Playmakers. They have been asked to play a key role in supporting both the short- and long-term mental health recovery of those impacted by the shooting. Their Playmaker knowledge, skills and tools will serve them well as they take on the huge challenge of helping children, teachers and families recover from something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. In addition, since Ant Toombs and I worked for many years in the acute trauma response field, we were able to connect our team at FCA with national experts in Critical Incident Response and Psychological First Aid. Our connections can be an important resource for those on the ground during the next couple of weeks. Also, in early January, Emily Saul and I will travel to Danbury to provide additional training to the core FCA team.
My strong belief is that our Playmakers at FCA will be deeply involved in the second phase of response too. We call this phase “Resource Identification & Coping.” My belief is that this phase will last for many months and possibly for over a year. During this second phase, play-based interventions will play a key role in helping to augment the natural recovery of children and to re-establish a sense of safety, joy and community. Our core Playmaker team will be available to support our FCA Playmakers every step of the way. What I am describing is exactly how the Playmaker approach is designed to work. Our central Playmaker team supports local care providers who in turn play the central role in healing and strengthening the children in their own communities.
After an event of this magnitude, there is usually a strong urge for caring and compassionate people to want to jump in and help immediately. Although these intentions are an inspiring sign of human goodness, an onslaught of outside responders can actually hurt the overall recovery effort. My belief is that the need for help will be greatest several months from now. When the horror of this event has faded from the public’s everyday thinking, that is the time that the Newtown community will need greatest assistance. We will be paying close attention through our friends at FCA, ready to provide additional assistance as needed. Of course, we know our growing Playmaker community is creative, resourceful, and compassionate, so our team is all ears if you have other ideas and suggestions for ways we can support the Newtown community in the days and months ahead.
Your Well-Being — and Resources to Help You
I said that I have been thinking about you this weekend. Mostly, I have been thinking about your work — how important it is, and how challenging it can be. This week leading up to the holidays is likely to be especially challenging for you and the children in your care. I ask that you not only do what you always do — provide inspired, loving care for your children — but that you are very present to your feelings and responses to the Newtown tragedy as well as the responses of your children. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the Playmaker team, to our community, and to your colleagues for personal support as well as advice on effectively responding to your children’s concerns and questions around the event. Speaking directly with other caring and thoughtful people is most helpful.
There are also a number of online resources available that offer quality guidance on talking about tragic events in the news with children. I recommend starting with the short, effective advice offered by 1) the Fred Rogers Company here and 2) the National Association of School Psychologists here. A third good source is The American School Counselor Association. It has a page of resources and links for parents, teachers and counselors in the aftermath of a shooting or other crisis here:
Above all, take care of yourself as we approach the holidays. At a glance, our many rituals of light at this time of the year may seem cruelly ironic in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. But it may help to remember that these rituals and symbolic actions have been practiced by cultures and faith traditions of all types for millennia as vital reminders of the enduring presence of light in our lives, especially at this time of year when the days shorten and the dark nights lengthen. Let’s remember that even the most terrible acts of darkness in our world cannot extinguish the light that we carry within us.
“I am the most natural when I work with kids. I really feel like I can express myself to them. They don’t apologize for being who they are, and they don’t expect you to apologize for who you are either,” says Whitney Dubois, a Playmaker from Cambridge, MA, and co-winner of the 4th annual Jessie Howes award. While Whitney did not know the late Jessie Howes, she has heard so much about him and his dedication to helping children that it was “truly an honor to be recognized as someone who embodies his spirit and his vision.”
Whitney (center) accepting the Jesse Howes Award from Playmakers Ant Toombs and Emily Saul.
Whitney is a teacher at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Preschool in Cambridge, MA, and, like Jessie Howes, also displays an amazing, energetic dedication to the children in her care. Whitney first learned about Life is good Playmakers after a few of her co-workers attended a workshop and raved about the experience upon their return. “Because some of the teachers at my center had already been trained as Playmakers, we had begun to incorporate some of the Playmaker strategies into the classroom,” says Whitney. “But it was really an honor to receive training myself, learn new games and understand the deeper meaning of the Playmaker approach. I have nothing but positive things to say about the whole experience.”
Since attending her first Playmaker training, Whitney has been to several other trainings. One “huge eye opener” for her has been “realizing the importance of taking care of myself and my own playfulness.” Working with a roomful of preschoolers and dealing with challenging behaviors can be highly stressful. Learning to channel, rather than stifle, that early exuberance is key to managing her own stress and maximizing their learning experience. As Whitney says “I can step back and remind myself that they are just four years old. If they want to be noisy, it may not be ideal for me, but as long as they are having fun while being safe and productive, it’s okay.”
Whitney has implemented Powerplay, a once-a-week structured intervention using guided play activities for small groups of children who have experienced trauma. The results have been excellent. One boy in particular who began with explosive behaviors and a controlling manner with the other children has made great strides. After just a couple of weeks of Powerplay, he would say “Yes, it’s Wednesday! Wednesday is Powerplay day!” He learned to let other people in the group share their play ideas and then build on and follow their play leads – a big step in learning to relinquish some control, use his imagination constructively, and engage positively with others.
Whitney receives a super-sized hug from some of the children in her care.
Whitney claims that she has never felt such dramatic, immediate, and positive effects come from any other organization’s work. “If I could say one thing to the donors and fundraisers who make the trainings and play kits possible, I would say thank you. By giving and raising money for Playmakers, you are changing the lives of so many children and planting optimism in the hearts of people who never thought they could possess such a feeling.” Ever the learner, Whitney plans to return to school and get her Masters degree in teaching. But her love of children and the magic that can happen in the classroom guarantee that she will return more ready than ever to spread joy. After all, who wouldn’t return to a job where, on any given day, a child might just take a running leap into your arms to give you a super-sized hug?
Liz Cincotta, a child life specialist from Pittsburg, PA, recently participated in our two-day Child Life Playmaker Certification Training in Boston. A few days later, she sent the following reflection on her experience to our training staff. Her letter provides proof that play does not only benefit the children in the care of frontline child care professionals, but also the adult caregivers themselves, especially those who thought that parachutes and jump ropes belonged only in their past. Liz reminds us that becoming a Playmaker is not just something you should do for the children in your care, but also for yourself.
Liz Cincotta, Pittsburgh Playmaker
I believe that joy is not just a noun. It is a verb. The real act of joy takes place in the heart, the mind, the body, and the spirit. It is all encompassing. It is a choice you make not just today, but everyday. It isn’t something you get. It is something you do over and over again. And that choice is reflected in the way you treat others every day of your life. Nothing can compare to the satisfaction and energy an adult feels when engaged in joyful play.
When I arrived in Boston on Friday prior to the Playmaker Child Life training, I have to admit, I was a bit flustered. A bit overwhelmed. And perhaps a bit discouraged. I was looking for something novel, and when we began the first day with a game of beachball taps, I have to admit, it was a novel, awesome, rejuvenating moment. I will never forget feeling utterly filled with wonder and joy instantaneously. This weekend’s Playmakers-in-training were a powerful, compassionate, innovative, fresh, caring, thoughtful, spirited, happy, and easy-going (should I keep going?) group of unique individuals. We turned into an intimate family with whom we could experience joy, playfulness, and energy from this day on. And when adults find true joy, children find true bliss, true happiness, even if only for a fleeting moment. And when children find true joy, adults find true compassion.
I believe that our greatest responsibility is to give children roots and wings. We strive to give children these roots through our relationships and interactions. We strive to give children wings to learn, explore, and engage in their worlds with a sense of love, creativity, and safety. This weekend will allow us to bring these roots to our children, to ourselves, to our families, and to our friends, and we will watch these wings soar. During the time we spent together this weekend, we were able to see the strength of each other’s character; the warmth and the great ability that we all have to make others happy, to make others do joy – through the mind, the body, and the spirit. We built a new family this weekend as we shared our smiles, our laughter, and our stories. It gives me great pleasure to have been able to be a part of this weekend and to be a part of this new family. So, I would like to add to the pledge that we took at the end of the training. Here is to our past, for all that we have learned. Here is to our present, for all that we share. Here is to our future for all that we have to look forward to together. My wish for you is that together we can face whatever life hands us, and that we remember to respect one another and those with whom we interact as we return to our busy lives. It is my wish that everyday we know how important it is to communicate, honor, and love one another in order for us to foster joy and playfulness, not only in the children’s lives with whom we work, but also in our own lives through play, balance, relationships, and creativity. Because that is what best friends and family do. And that is why joy is a verb – it is something that you do.
Check out the below guest blog about Steve’s recent trip to Japan.
My name is Shuei Kozu and I am a licensed Social Worker in the Neurology department of Children’s Hospital in Boston. I recently traveled to Japan with Steve Gross, founder and Chief Playmaker of the Life is good Playmakers to assist in training and supporting Japanese medical and health professionals who are working heroically to help children in communities deeply scarred by the terrible events of March, 2011. I experienced first-hand the power and effectiveness of the Life is good Playmakers approach in Japan and hope to capture some of that in the brief reflection that follows.
Because of its location, Japan periodically suffers from damages caused by earthquakes and tsunami. For decades, residents of the Tohoku area had taken preventative measures that included building high embankments and participation in practice drills. Tragically, three large-scale disasters hit simultaneously in March 2011, a convergence of events that most considered only possible once in 1,000 years. First, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck. The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami. And the tsunami led to a cataclysmic nuclear plant explosion. The death toll exceeded 25,000. A snapshot of children in two heavily affected areas, Miyagi and Iwate prefects, hints at the terrible loss. In Miyagi, 126 children lost both parents, while 94 children lost both parents in Iwate. The number of children who lost one parent is 960 in Miyagi and 481 in Iwate. While numbers convey one measure of the devastation, children’s suffering cannot be quantified. How can one measure the sorrow of losing parents, friends, teachers or beloved pets? The majority of these children have been placed with relatives who were, themselves, survivors of the disasters. Understandably, they were not ready, physically or psychologically, to care for these children. Nor have the normal structures and institutions been able to respond adequately: communities were destroyed and teachers and mental health professionals were overwhelmed.
Continued efforts are needed to empower local professionals, teachers and parents as they play key roles in children’s recovery from the disasters. The Life is good Playmakers have played an important part in those efforts. First, Playmaker staff worked with 18 Japanese medical and mental health professionals who visited Boston in December 2011. They experienced 2½ days of training, which solidified the team spirit within the group. They learned about the effects of trauma and the restorative power of playful engagement and loving relationships in the lives of children. They learned more as well – about themselves and how overwhelmed they have been. Doctors are aware of trauma’s impact on children and may be familiar with some of the benefits of play, but they rarely experience this impact on themselves and they rarely experience play. Not only were they able to bond with each other and heal through the experiences, they immediately saw the great value of working with children in Japan using the Playmaker model. They had met with other trauma experts on their trip to the US, but they found none provided both the conceptual framework and the practical tools as thoroughly and effectively as Playmakers. As a result, they began to talk about inviting Playmakers to Japan so other providers and children would benefit from the intervention.
Even before he left Boston, Dr. Homma, the leader of the delegation, began forming a plan to bring Playmakers to Japan. Back in Japan, he organized a task force that obtained funds and recruited children and adult providers. Steve Gross, Chief Playmaker, and I left for Japan on April 26. In four days, 69 children participated in “play day camp” and 60 adults (psychologists, social workers, daycare-, kindergarten- and grade school teachers) were trained. Each day brought new challenges and learning opportunities. For example, some children did not even want to come into the building and mingle with other children whom they did not know. We had to deal with a large number of children, a few with developmental delays, a few with abuse history, and many who experienced psychological trauma. All but one child eventually joined the group. A few girls who were wondering why Steve would not speak to them in Japanese ended up touching his head by the end of the day and flashing big smiles. And all the adult providers left with equally big smiles on their faces after experiencing the joy and healing power of the Playmaker approach. Since returning to the United States, I have been receiving e-mails from a number of them, describing how they have used the approach with their children and the benefits of such joyful activities as parachute play with the parachutes provided by the Playmakers.
It is impossible to describe what it was like spending a week with Steve Gross in Japan. While working, he was a true professional. Outside of work, he was “Curious George”. He ate everything he was served, took a public bath every day, and fell in love with the Japanese toilet design (the one Tom Brady installed in his mansion). His approach is respectful, and his interaction with people so genuine that all gravitate toward him. He exercises what he preaches: taking a playful approach to each day and living life to the fullest. I learned so much by working side by side with him. But I learned so much more by simply spending time with him. I know I am not the only one waiting for Steve and the Playmakers’ next trip to Japan.
Great news has reached us that one of our very own Playmakers – Dwayne Nunez – has been awarded the 2012 Emerging Professional Award by Men Teach of New England! This award honors male teachers in the early education field in New England who are making valuable contributions in their classrooms and in their communities. Dwayne will receive his award this month at the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children.
An early education teacher in Boston Public Schools (BPS) since 2008, Dwayne has made it his personal mission to create joyful, loving, empowering, and creative classrooms where children are nurtured to reach their full potential. Not only does he incorporate this approach into gross motor play activities with children in the classroom, in the gym, and outside on the playground, he also weaves it into his curriculum delivery as well. For example, Dwayne encourages his students to make up creative movements, such as a kick or arm-thrust into the air, to match syllables as they break down words during a phonological awareness exercise.
This infusion of physical movement and fun into the teaching of a critical literacy concept keeps the children actively engaged and improves their learning retention. It also leads to peals of laughter that spill out into the hallways of the Haynes Early Education Center of BPS.
Dwayne’s thoughtful, innovative methods have helped him build the kinds of transformative relationships with his students that help them thrive and succeed in school. Even his non-instructional choices have an effect.
One day a student of his told him that there were no important people in his community. When Dwayne asked him why he thought that, the little boy replied that important people wear ties and people in his neighborhood hardly ever wear ties. Dwayne, who was from this little boy’s neighborhood, came to school the next day in a tie. He’s worn one to school every day since. Recently, one boy student, wishing to emulate his favorite teacher, marched proudly into class wearing his own tie. In small and big ways, Dwayne is setting a powerful example.
Dwayne has been a tireless supporter of the Life is good Playmakers movement since 2006. He is a dependable volunteer at every Life is good Festival. And as a part-time trainer for the Playmakers, he has shared his wisdom with other teachers and providers, most recently leading sessions as part of our February certification training for the BPS’ Behavioral Health Services. It is great to see Dwayne’s many contributions recognized with this prestigious award.
A letter from Washington DC Playmaker Cathy Morrison.
Thanks to the Playmakers, I have fallen in love all over again! This time last year, I found myself in quite a rut and stuck in the mud. Every morning, I would go into the classroom and greet the little ones who had been entrusted to my care with a weak, hurried smile wondering with dread how many crises I would have to deal with, how many tears I would have to wipe, how many more minutes I would have to keep up the happy face until dismissal. I’m not sure when or how my love for teaching started diminishing, but I could feel the fire burning low and after twenty years of teaching I was ready to walk away from what has been my life passion. Then one day as I was searching the internet for lesson plan ideas to inspire my students, I tripped upon a link for the Life is good Playmakers and that began my journey to be a Life is good Playmaker.
I signed up for training hoping to find a few ideas to get my class through the daily stress of the classroom. Play seemed like a good place to start. Over the years, my closet has become crammed full of all sorts of equipment, balls, jump ropes, dolls, trucks, and building blocks. At playtime I would pull these out and tell the kids to play for the allotted fifteen minutes. When I put them back in the closet, I would always make sure I kept the big bag holding the parachute carefully hidden. Why? The beautiful colorful parachute was the bane of my existence. Every time I pulled it out the students cheered, they LOVED the bright colors flowing in the air; but I had grown to hate it. To me the parachute meant chaos and tears. Someone would always get hurt or frustrated or have their feelings bruised and the wonderful flowing colors of the day that we imagined would end in a pool of tears with me feeling very tense and snapping at the students “if we can’t play nicely with the toys, we’ll have to put them away”. And with that I’d take the parachute and toss it back in the closet. Over time the parachute came out less and less until finally it was hidden and forgotten.
So you can imagine my dread when I walked into the first day of Playmakers training to see a HUGE parachute on the ground, all spread out with its beautiful primary colors gleaming. The one piece of equipment that had caused so much chaos in my classroom was inviting me to pick it up and engage with it. Thankfully over the course of the training, I began to see why the kids cheered and loved the parachute so much. It was indeed FUN and made you actively engage and interact with your friends in such a way that you immersed yourself into this colorful world. As I laughed and cheered while we played with it, I felt the spark of love for the parachute rekindling something deep down in me, re-lighting my passion for teaching and my trust in my gifts and talents to do it well. I knew then I wasn’t ready to give up on inspiring and teaching the little ones who were entrusted to me each day.
I now use the parachute every day. It’s part of our community. It’s the place where we reconnect as a classroom community. It’s where we say good morning to ourselves, our bodies, our friends and our world. It’s where we learn to take care of each other and keep each other safe as we wash our “smooshies” in the pot. It’s where we learn to use our voices to share what we want the parachute to become, whether a fruit bowl or a racetrack or a wave-maker. It’s home base and the place where we go when we’re not sure of ourselves during more active games. In fact, it’s home. Bringing back the parachute has reminded me that as teachers we are charged with guiding our students to do all these things – to reconnect, to take care of each other, to self-actualize and become advocates for ourselves and the ones we care about. All the things we do on the parachute are what living in a community is all about.
So yes, I have fallen in love all over again with the parachute, but more importantly, I have fallen in love again with teaching and with the passion to provide my students with a solid community where they can grow into wonderful, amazing confident adults who will always remember the value of PLAY!
“One person can make a difference and every person should try,” said President Kennedy. Jen Medeiros-Crabbe provides us with a sparkling example. Jen, a school psychologist in the Boston Public School (BPS) system, is the first critical link in a strong, lengthening chain created between the Life is good Playmakers and the BPS’s Behavioral Health Services department. Behavioral Health Services staff provide essential mental health services for some 55,000 children throughout the city’s school system.
Jen first applied for a Playmakers Basic Training back in 2010. She also recruited six other department members to attend our fall training that year. This initial enthusiastic group of new Playmakers began implementing their learning in impressive ways while also encouraging the department to apply for a grant that would provide training and support for the entire department. And that’s just how it has played out, with BHS gaining a grant that enabled fully sixty members – essentially the entire department – to attend a two-day Playmakers Advanced Training on February 3-4 in Norwood, MA.
Our Playmakers staff is now providing follow-up coaching and support for this talented group to ensure the most effective transfer of learning to their work with children. BHS Assistant Director Andria Amador, a recognized innovator in delivering mental health services to children, is a key partner in developing the ongoing support system for this important group of school psychologists and newly certified Playmakers. We look forward to growing the partnership that Jen began and ensuring Boston’s schoolchildren have the best support possible from this skilled and dedicated group of child care professionals.
Below is a beautiful essay written by Antonia Nichols that captures the true essence of what the Playmaker spirit is all about. Antonia is a senior in high school who dedicates much of her life to helping the most vulnerable among us. Her attitude of optimism makes her one special young woman
Shall we skip?
Henry and I were walking in the dark after we finished watching a movie. We drifted towards his beat-up truck on the dirt road past the church. This road is something special; it is not just dirt and rocks. He stopped and his eyes shifted to meet mine.
“Do you want to skip?” he asked already knowing the answer.
“…Yes, of course” I replied, surprised that he knew me enough to offer.
This road is my skipping road, a road that is often filled with echoes of familiar laughter. It is a road I have run down blowing bubbles in the spring, sliding on ice in the winter, and always vow to skip down in the summer. Only on a small island like this could I make such a promise to myself. Every time I travel the distance from Erica’s house to the line where the paved road starts I must skip. Skipping brings a feeling like flying, just a moment of freedom from the strain of the world. I am a person with skin that uncontrollably permits feelings and senses to enter my body, making me incapable of ignoring others and hopeful that one-day every child can have that skipping feeling of invincible joy.
Taking a moment to fly with my heart doesn’t mean forgetting, it’s just giving myself the power to reboot and continue strong. While skipping, never forgotten memories flash through my mind vividly with each step. Memories of voices saying “we don’t recycle in this school”, visions of a child with Down syndrome struggling to understand, tense feelings from debates of seemingly impenetrable poverty and Kenneth, the young war-weary Ugandan boy’s eyes glistening in the sun, deepened with fear and intensified with pain, all rush through my mind. With such images of struggle it is seemingly impossible to imagine a carefree world. Yet when I skip down this road that feeling of emptiness, helplessness, is momentarily forgotten. Heading towards that paved road I am reminded why I believe in a passion for life, a love of people, and an idealistic humanitarian world. I know that kindness can spread like wild fire. The emptiness will never completely leave me; but for that moment there is hope that we can build communities in which people step up to help one another. For that moment I know that the knowledge I will gain will leave me with the tools to help those who hurt and have no voice. When I skip that little spark burning inside, the one that tells me anything is possible increases in size. Doubts slip out of my mind, and I know with my determination, education and passion I can change the world by touching others.
The boy with whom I walked towards that truck may not have wanted to skip, but he knows me and cared enough to let me fly once again.
“Do you want to skip?”
“… Yes, of course”
by Antonia Nichols
Here's Antonia at the 2010 Life is good Festival with Ziggy Marley.
In early October, I decided to listen to my Playfulness Plan and go on a “little” vacation with my wife, Dianne. We headed over to Tanzania to try and tackle a challenge that has been on our minds the past few years – to do our best to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,895m (about 19,300 feet), Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. I remember sitting in my 7th grade global studies class learning about the mountain and the beautiful glaciers on top, and a seed was definitely unconsciously planted to visit it one day. And here we were, years. later.
For 4.5 days, we slowly hiked up the mountain. Our mantra was, “Pole pole,” which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly.” As we tackled rocks, dirt, alpine deserts, and the occasional rain/snow storm, I chatted with our guides about music, life in Tanzania, politics, and family. On October 10th, Dianne and I made it to the top, short of breath but in awe and deep humility of the natural beauty around us.
The entire trip, best exemplified by the people we met along the way, was a true testament to the mantras that optimism has no borders, and can certainly take you anywhere. We certainly couldn’t have summited Kilimanjaro nor had such a good time doing it without the support and friendship of folks we met along the way. And a special thanks to friends and family – through their generous donations, I raised $1,400 for the Life is good Kids Foundation to help kids overcome poverty, illness, and violence. We couldn’t have done it without your support either!
Rolland and Dianne with Life is good's icon of optimism Jake, who provided plenty of playfulness along the way.
Life is good Genuine Neighborhood Shoppe owners Andy and Lynn have been supporting our work for years. We made a pit stop in Stone Harbor, New Jersey to say thanks the Playmaker way. Take a quick peak to find out what they do to stay playful!