The Balance Between Structure and Play and it’s Long Lasting Results

This week as I was working with a group of emotionally disturbed adolescents, I was amazed to watch this group of boys, who seemingly easily set each other off, eagerly choose instruments and begin to work together. None of these boys have any musical training, but as they chose their instruments I began a very loosely structured “rainstorm”. The boys quickly listened to one another, allowed a leader to emerge, established a beat and structure. They listened to one boy who used a repetitive ostinato on the keyboard, gave it a visual label,”That sounds like monkeys” and they all tried to compliment the label he created. Soon after another label emerged from another boy. The same pattern followed. Our time was coming to a close and the boys wanted to continue, so one said to the other, “Next time we’ll both use this keyboard N, ok?” The two boys who never really interacted, and were really at two different places developmentally, were voluntarily working as partners. How did this happen?

As my week continued, I watched a few other situations and came to this conclusion: we all need structure and play. We all need a space to be accepted for whom we are and our abilities. I think so often a benchmark is placed on our abilities. Everything must be done inside the box and there is only one pathway that is measureable and acceptable. The problem is, outside that box, exists so many wonderful things. Roads that are less travelled can lead to the place we are striving for anyway.

Play happens outside the box. Play has structure. There is no perfect play, just performance perfection. Academics need standards and benchmarks. When we approach a group, of kids or adults, we need to decide on the priority for the group (or individual). Is it academic or growth (social, emotional) related? If the latter is the priority, we need to be a good parent in the approach; set the boundaries, with some direction but more support. Quality of production is not important at this point. What is inside will come out. Giving structural support allows the individual (autistic, special needs, emotionally disturbed, etc.) to own and gain control by their very own motivation.

The importance of the playfulness is the freedom it gives, whether we are adult or child. Directions give us responsibility, and many clients, adults or children are either just not ready for that yet, need a break from it, or need a balance. How many people are ready or willing to let you know how to do it better? Bigger, better, more – the theme words for our time. But how many people are willing to accompany you while you attempt, fail, succeed, climb, fumble, search? Not quite as many. Which would you generally prefer?

I think we forget the term is to “play” music. We say play, but often what is really meant is perform, learn, study or memorize.

Children that can play for an afternoon, not needing adult intervention, have excellent communication and social skills. Someone comes up with an idea, the next one adds to it or uses it as  spring board for the play to take a different direction. Critical thinking skills are not taught, they are developed. An improvised play is spontaneously produced. No one person is the owner, the boss, entitled. What is developed is natural, long lasting, and healthy.

Children with autism repetitively stim, not play. When someone can support and structure that stim, it can become playful and functional.

One last example; when my own kids were young, I decided they needed to learn piano lessons at an early age. I approached it as learning with a right and wrong way of doing things – the way I said. When they tried to do it their way, I was forever correcting them. I decided just to give them basics; scales, arpeggio’s and basic one, four, and five chords. The rest of the time, I played and sang with them. We enjoyed that. The boys both found their own instruments  and now improvise and write their own music better than myself at much earlier ages. My daughter does not think of herself as a singer. She has a beautifully clear voice, and although rarely, voluntarily “performs,’ if asked, does it without squirming or nervousness. I remember being on the phone, several times when she was little and people saying “Who is that? Who is singing? Is that Monica?”  She sang when she played, she sang to put herself to sleep. I was so used to that, I didn’t even really notice.

Last week, I was a chaperon on an overnight trip with her. She, and some of her friends won individual awards on a fairly intense science presentation they made and were at the next level presenting again. I was rooming with her teacher (in college dorm rooms) with the girls on either side of our room. The night before their presentation, as I was falling asleep, her teacher (also a long time friend of mine) kept saying, “Who is that singing?” The next morning as we were standing in line for breakfast checking with the girls on how they slept. Finally I asked, “Mrs S kept saying someone was singing. Who was that?” Several of the girls chimed in at once: “Monica.” This was her last burst of letting loose and having fun before the seriousness of the morning.

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