Thoughts To Chew
by Peter Alsop
I find myself chewing some thoughts uncomfortably these days. We are so lucky to do the kind of work we do! We play music for kids and families. We lift people’s spirits with our songs. We bring laughter, joy, community, gentleness, and clarity to our audiences. Yet at the same time, I’m uncomfortable about a mean-spiritedness that’s afoot in our world. It affects all of us.
I look into the future and see where we are headed, and it does not feel like a safe place for any of our children or grandchildren. It’s clear that if we continue going in the same direction, we will end up where we’re headed. That scares me. Many of us have these same concerns. How do we manage to keep our spirits up and play for children and families while this sword of Damocles hangs over our heads? It’s hard to feel playful.
What exactly does that mean, play? When I play for (and with) my audience, I remember that playing with others involves interacting with someone without really knowing where our interaction will take us. Sometimes we play a game and we try to win, but when we truly understand play, we know that, win or lose, playing the game is why we’re here. The process is more important than the outcome. (We’re working on teaching this point to some of the dads in Little League baseball. It’s getting better!)
People in our audience aren’t there trying to win. We all come together for a communal experience that will lift each of us in some way. My lift is the hope that when my audience hears one of my songs, they discover some new tool for their toolbox that they didn’t have before. Maybe there’s an idea or perspective or some new information that can help them cope with one of the many difficulties that families face these days.
When we play with others—sing music or play games or tell stories or just play around—we create a place where we discover things, hopefully fun and useful things. But sometimes we try things that don’t work so well. We run into blind alleys that just don’t go anywhere. These playful excursions aren’t mistakes because we don’t play with any real agenda to accomplish. We’re playing, and we find out that we don’t want to go in that direction anymore. Good information to have! The process of playing provides us with unexpected opportunities to learn life skills about flexibility.
My friends Matt Weinstein and Joel Goodman wrote a book many years ago called Playfair about playing noncompetitive games. One of my favorites was called “Earth Ball,” and we actually played it in college as a mixer between our freshman class and the class just ahead of us. A giant six-foot inflatable ball painted like the planet Earth was placed in the middle of the football field, with the freshman on one side and the sophomores on the other side. We struggled to roll the ball across the opposing team’s goal line to score a point.
So, you ask, “How was this play noncompetitive?”
Well, the game rules allowed anyone to switch teams at any time they wanted. If you felt sorry for the other team who was losing, or you just wanted to play longer, you could switch teams and push the ball in the other direction. It’s flexibility in action, and a good lesson about not getting angry when things don’t go your way. We were playing because it was fun. And of course, play can be serious too. Learning the skill of letting go of something can be a seriously important skill to have in our toolbox and useful in so many other areas of our lives.
How can we maintain our high regard for being playful with our audiences while we feel overwhelmed with fear about where our world is headed? Playing can seem like frivolous activity or even a luxury that we should not indulge in because everything around us feels dangerous and serious. My method of coping with this dilemma is to focus on activities I do for myself that help lift me out of my fears. When we do this, we find clues as to how we might play with our kids, parents, and teachers. I find that if I take some action that feels like I’m helping create a more caring world, I feel lifted and empowered. We might research and learn a song or story by someone else about a topic that’s bothering us, or even write that song ourselves. Then we tell our audience about our concern, explain why we’re doing the next song with them, and invite them to play with us and sing along. It’s about building skills AND community. And it doesn’t feel so lonely when there’s a bunch of us folks all admitting that we’d like for things to be better. Here’s a song I wrote for this very reason called “Stick My Neck Out!”
Stick My Neck Out!
by Peter Alsop
© 2010 Peter Alsop
Amy, the giraffe stuck her neck up so high,
She saw hungry lions hiding in a bush nearby
But Amy didn’t tell her friends, she turned and ran away.
Now she feels awful, ’cause she acted that way.
So, Amy made a promise to speak up for little guys
Even if it’s scary for someone her size
So, when Amy spots a carnivore, she does her thing
She sticks her neck out and starts to sing!
Gotta stick my neck out! Before it’s too late!
Gotta stick my neck out! Co-co, co-communicate!
Gotta stick my neck out! When my friends are in a bind
Gotta stick my neck out! And say what’s on my mind!
We’re all animals, and we all need some help
We can sing out for the little ones who can’t sing out for themselves!
So instead of eating others, let’s share this world with them
Stick your neck out just like me! Be a vegetarian!
Gotta stick my neck out! To help a little friend
Gotta stick my neck out! Be a vegetarian!
If I’m a carnivore today, well, tomorrow that might end!
Gotta stick my neck out! If I’m gonna help a friend!
Now every kid knows when something doesn’t feel right
We’ve been taught to keep our mouth shut and t’keep out of sight
Sure, it’s scary to speak up when you’re the only one
But if we all sing together, we can get something done!
Gotta stick my neck out! When something feels wrong.
Gotta stick my neck out! Gotta raise my voice in song!
Gotta stick my neck out! Not hang it in a bend.
Gotta stick my neck out! Get the violence to end.
Gotta stick my neck out! There’s injustice in the land.
Gotta stick my neck out! It’s time to take a stand!
Gotta stick my neck out! Not all crunched up and curled
Gotta stick my neck out! If we’re gonna save the world!
If we stick our necks out all together,
Then we can save the world!
On Grow It at Home
One might ask, “Peter, is playing a song to encourage kids to take some action when something feels wrong effective?” It’s an interesting question, because for me, the answer is irrelevant. To which one might respond, “What? I don’t even own an elephant!” (irrelevant = yer elephant—see? Playfulness!)
There’s an interesting study that was done about forty years ago in which an anxiety assessment was given to a number of school-aged children who had been divided into two groups. One group had parents active in trying to stop the growth of nuclear weapons and power. The other group had parents who were not active. The results showed that children whose parents took any kind of action to stop the spread of nuclear activity had much less anxiety than the children of parents who took no action. Most important to me was that it made no difference if the activist parents’ efforts were effective or not. The kids were simply less anxious because their parents were taking action to try to make things safer in their world.
In “Stick My Neck Out,” Amy the Giraffe is a vegetarian, but does that mean all of us must be vegetarians? No! And we would never put anyone down for their food preferences. It simply opens the door playfully for discussion. Can we listen to others who believe or feel differently than we do? We are surrounded by such polarized ideas in the world today that we might like to play some songs that can generate an introduction or discussion about how we might hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time, without having to make one right and one wrong.
By introducing this message and playing with it from our stage, we can create other “what if?” moments to share with the families that further illustrate this useful skill.
“What if a snake decided to eat its own tail?”
“What would broccoli say if it could talk to a vegetarian?”
“What could we do to stop someone from bullying other kids in school?”
When I play around with these kinds of ideas with kids, I often express obviously useless and incorrect information so they can correct me and come up with their own, better ideas. And sometimes they have great ideas. And sometimes they’re not so hot, so I might keep on playing with them. Like:
“Okay, so you just want to throw the bully out of school, but bully is just another name that we give to that real kid. (I take off one shoe.) Like, the name of this thing here is a shoe, right?”
“But if I put it on my head,...it’s not a shoe anymore, is it? It’s a hat! Right?”
(No! It’s still a shoe!)
“I don’t know! You don’t wear a shoe on your head, do you?”
“But you wear a hat on your head, right!”
“So, this thing on my head,...maybe it’s a hat now!”
“You think it’s still a shoe?”
“Okay but, maybe, it’s a shoe AND a hat at the same time!”
(No! It’s a shoe!)
“Hey! What if I put my hand inside of this, then it’s not a shoe or a hat, it’s a glove, right?!”
When I fool around and play with kids like this, I want to explain that when someone bullies (verb) someone else they can be taught other ways to behave (verb). When we call them a name like Bully (noun/label), that limits them, because they are also a Kid (noun/label), and also maybe a Victim (noun/label) at home.
But before we go there, I want the kids to know there’s some constancy in life, so I finally agree with them, and tell them that I’m only playing with them.
“You kids know that I wasn’t telling you the truth, right?”
“But I wasn’t lying to you because we’re only playing and you knew that. And playing is fun, as long as someone’s not really trying to trick you. So, if you ever want to know the REAL truth, I will cross my heart and tell you the truth. I know this is really my shoe, cross my heart! So, you know I’m not playing or fooling around anymore.”
And I don’t ever fudge or play with that because I want children to trust me. If I ever tell a child or anyone something and I “cross my heart,” it becomes very important for me to make sure I show up and keep my word to them. So even when we’re playing, we can pass on lessons about trust, love, and respect. That’s something that lifts my heart and moves the world in the direction of being a less mean-spirited and more caring place for the people who will be here after us. Let’s keep on building this caring community!