While taking an independent study “The Particularity of Play” mentored by Nils Lou, one of my projects involved engaging others in play through the use of unexpected objects in their work space. I placed a basket containing approximately twenty new play objects in each of two meeting rooms. The first was in Oregon City School District’s Special Education department meeting room where Individual Education Plan meetings occur with students, parents and staff. The objects were clearly not things ordinarily found in that setting: a magic genie lamp, a giant pair of ears, brain floss, squishy balls, finger puppets, pens with eye balls or animals on the eraser end. Another employee set the basket in the meeting room on my behalf, when other employees were not present. That employee sits near the office, which has a window facing her desk, so she served as “mole” to provide information about the status of the toys and staff interactions with them.
The morning that the basket was placed in the meeting room, I happened to walk past the lobby of that building where a woman was waiting. She said hello and I responded, asking if she was waiting for her child. “I’m waiting for a meeting,” she said. “Oh, fun.” I replied. “No…” she said. “Not fun. They’re never fun.” I felt a sense of anticipation that perhaps this time it would be different, given that there were fun objects present in the environment. Who knew what might happen next?
Indeed. What happened next is that the psychologist in charge of that meeting, Mr. U, removed the basket from the room before the meeting. According to two sources, U became agitated the objects were in the room, stating they were inappropriate and offensive. He placed the basket on a table just outside the meeting room, a spot that ordinarily houses treats and goodies for staff. Despite the categorical dismissal of the toys, other staff members began to explore them. What was striking was their willingness to play with them without disrupting their original packaging. How odd is it, I wondered, for adults to rub a magic genie lamp for wishes without removing the plastic wrap first? How hungry were they to play with the objects despite concern about whose property they were and whether or not they had permission to open them.
At the end of the first week, I went into the area after-hours and removed the outer packaging from each. I placed some objects back in the meeting room without the basket and left others on the table. Still others I left on the copy machine or on top of a file cabinet. The following day, the insider staff member called to tell me that someone wanted to know where they’d come from and why they were there. Other employees wore the huge ears while typing at their desks or explored the tactile objects. The Director of Special Education, Mr. F, she explained, announced to some employees that he thought the toys were part of an educational study, which imbued their presence in the environment and their subsequent use with a level of permissibility that seemed to placate the uncomfortable staff member.
The toys became a source of jokes used to relieve tension. At the end of the second week, I sent an email out to the members of the special education staff that had come in contact with the objects. A second school psychologist, Mr. L responded that the special education director, assistant director, Mr. U and the learning specialist were having a tense meeting in the director’s office: “I put one of the Spock ears on, stuck my head through the doorway and announced, “I couldn’t help but hear what you were saying.” At an eligibility meeting in the conference room…I picked up the multi-eye-stalk toy and said, “If we’re deciding about whether this student should be made eligible, it seems to me the ‘eyes’ have it.
“I also really enjoyed the toy you squeeze and all of these bugs and a little blood appears. It appeals to the gross little boy that still lives inside of every man, you know, the one that still likes fart jokes.”
In contrast, Mr. U did not respond to my email request for feedback, but took an opportunity to talk with me in person when our paths crossed. His response was confined to the benefit of those “types of toys” for children with sensory difficulties. When pressed for a personal response, he confessed to being a fidgety child, but that his older brother was “worse.” He seemed unaware that I knew he had removed the basket from the room and I did not mention it. The goal was to investigate what might occur in the presence of playful objects, not ask others to defend their actions.
A similar basket was placed in the school district board room where “The Cabinet” (school district top administrators) meets. Occasionally individual administrators will meet with members of the public there, too. I placed this basket in the office with the assistance of the administrator whose office door is most closely aligned with the meeting room, but without the consent or knowledge of other administrators or the superintendant.
The administrative insider, Ms. H, gave intermittent feedback over two weeks. She indicated after a week that the toys without wrapping were getting more playtime than toys in packaging. In particular, the cabinet members liked the squishy brain. On about the sixth day, Ms. H reported that the brain had been used so vigorously during one session that it had been squashed flat. I offered to exchange it for special education’s brain which seemed to be getting little action. She accepted. I delivered the brain some hours later, expecting to drop it off in an empty conference room as the door was open, but she and two others were meeting. I quietly entered and set the brain on the end of the table. “We have a new brain!” she exclaimed, disrupting the moment of business, but eliciting smiles.
Again, I waited a week to unwrap the toys. It fascinated me that so many highly paid individuals who made important decisions about children’s lives were so hesitant to unwrap $3 toys, yet would still play with them with the outer packaging intact. At the two week mark, I sent emails to the administrators who had contact with the objects in the school district board room. Superintendant Dr. R concurred that the squeeze toys were favorite: “The preferred items were the brain and the ball that when squeezed reveals worms/snakes inside… The brain was often pushed into action when someone thought that someone else needed a new one.”
The administrator for special programs Mr. H wrote that “there was a sense of mourning when the brain was broken. The group was rejuvenated when a brain transplant occurred.” He stated that his recollection is that all individuals present during the five cabinet meetings handled the objects. “Even certain members whom I would think would not have surprised me and picked up an item, observing and investigating.” At one point during a cabinet meeting, Ms. H reports that two administrators put finger puppets on their fingers and began “talking with each other using funny voices.”
(This excerpt is from “The Particularity of Play” by Deb Stone. Portions of that paper were published in Nils Lou’s The Play Book.)