The Power of Play

Fighting the urge to have "the talk."

Last week, my son’s second-grade teacher asked for help. The class was doing an end-of-year writing assessment and my son had scribbled one short paragraph and then given up. The teacher said she knew he was capable, but that he just wouldn’t do the assignment. She added that she would be giving the kids more time, and asked if there was anything I could do to get him to give his best effort.

I told her I’d do my best, and we hopped on our bikes to head home. I fought the intense urge to have “the talk.”

All I wanted to say was, “Come on, dude. You know you can write a short personal narrative. It’s about you! What you say. What you did. What you felt. What’s the big deal! You can’t even get the facts wrong. Only two more weeks of school. Just do it!”

But through my steady pedaling and breathing, I was able to regain access to the higher intelligence of my species.

Once we were home and had eaten our snack, I said, “Hey, sweety, Ms. Gadsby tells me you were struggling today with your personal narrative.”

“I’m just not doing it!” he snapped.

“She’s going to give you all more time to work on the assignment tomorrow, and I know you can do a great job!” I offered, beaming confidence in his direction.

“I’m not going to do it!” The tears began flowing.

“What’s hard about it?” I asked, folding him into my arms.

The tears kept coming. “She’s asking us to do things that she didn’t even teach us! She said mine looked like a ‘great beginning,’ but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end! Heather sits next to me and she wrote like twelve pages on paper where the lines are … big, and my paper has skinny lines. It’s not fair! Me and Jimmy aren’t doing it. …”

After a few minutes, he grew calmer and peeked up at me.

I had a moment of inspiration. “What were you doing for those two-hour blocks when everyone was writing?” I asked, with a gleam in my eye. “Picking your nose?”

He giggled. “No!” he smiled. “I was just laying with my head on my desk.” He modeled exactly how he’d sat, arms crossed in front of him on his desk, head rested in the nest it formed.

“Hmm … I had no idea you could write in that position! Let me try,” I said, moving my face around awkwardly, as if I were trying to write with my nose.

He giggled more, and then his chuckles became big belly laughs as I tried again.

“Do you know what happens to little kids who attempt to write essays with their noses?”

“No smooches!” he yelled, familiar with the game, and bolted out of the room. My attempts to get him empowered him, because I was never quite able to catch up for a kiss. And they marked progress in my mind, as I was watching a scared, frustrated kid turn into a relaxed happy one.

Once our game ended, we had a great conversation, reminiscing about a family trip from a few years back. We talked about how we got there, what our favorite parts of the trip were, and what those parts looked, smelled, and tasted like. He said that someday he really wanted to go back.

“Sounds like a great personal narrative!” I looked him in the eye. “You’ll have lots to write about tomorrow.”

He smiled.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at pick-up the next day when I popped my head into my son’s classroom and gave his teacher that “Well, how’d it go?” glance.

But her smile and two thumbs up said it all. And his excited exclamation that he finished his essay was icing on the cake.


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