In her cubicle in the university lab where she worked for five years, my daughter kept a large magnet made from a detailed drawing she did as a child: a bright-eyed girl with glasses and pigtails, a beaker of something sciency, and a sheet of notebook paper with the blue horizonal lines, the red vertical line and the holes for the three-ring binder.
Three years ago today, the grown-up girl lived out that long-ago drawing. She spent several hours talking about her work, which I don’t understand very well, and answering 90 minutes’ worth of questions from her faculty committee, in that academic watershed of defending her doctoral dissertation.
Anyone’s path from kindergarten to Ph.D. is long, but looking back, I think hers was always smoothed by knowing how to combine learning with play.
In kindergarten, when the teacher said chicken was on the cafeteria menu that day, she announced, “C-H-I-C-K-E-N, that’s the way you spell chicken,” quoting from one of her favorite musical groups of the era, Sharon, Lois & Bram.
She wore a hand-me-down lab coat and played hospital, with a wheeled TV cart the perfect height to be a gurney for My-Size Barbie. And she mimicked the voice of the hospital intercom just right: “There’s a tornado coming on floors four, five and six. Floors four, five and six.”
She’d come home from school and hold Dog School, sitting atop the feeder in the backyard, teaching what she’d learned that day, rapping the side of the feeder with a stick when the less intelligent dog’s attention wandered.
In her softball days, she was safe at third one time because she slid. She slid as if she’d been practicing, perfect, beautiful, but it was her first time ever; she didn’t know she was going to do it until she was doing it.
Her salads were art, the cherry tomatoes and mushrooms and green pepper slivers and carrots arranged on top like a mandala.
Hiking in Montana, this girl who would grow up to major in biology walked ahead of me and, in a gentle, reassuring voice, pointed out the places that might be snaky. (I was afraid of them. She wasn’t.)
In college, she called once for advice on possible Halloween costumes she could put together, and decided on Frida Kahlo. She went in character to feed the pipefish in her undergraduate lab before continuing to the party.
Her pink and black pencil box from school made a great cash register when she played convenience store. It also made a great card catalog when she played school library.
She once appeared in the living room wearing her magician cape, walked up to the Little Tykes chalkboard, and announced, “I will now perform some math for you.”
The weekend she and other candidates visited the university to be interviewed for the Ph.D. program, she called home and said she wasn’t sure she belonged in this group. (The fact that upon meeting, they geeked out about the new Sharpie pens should have been a clue that she had no worries.)
A few weeks later, she called to say she’d been chosen, and also there was this scholarship they gave to one incoming Ph.D. candidate, a scholarship she didn’t even know existed, and they were offering it to her.
Creative, attentive to detail, loving learning for its own sake, imaginative, thoughtful, intrepid, sensitive, well rounded, able to fly by the seat of her pants when necessary — it’s such a joy to watch those early examples of a child’s attributes, and to see how they manifest themselves in adulthood. And it’s not surprising that play is still part of the mix.
I’ve been thinking a lot about play lately. About the ways adults don’t let themselves do it, or do it without realizing it. About ways that it feeds creativity and breaks through writing slumps. About its roots in permission and possibility. This spring and summer, Laura Boggess and I are teaching an online workshop on just that: Play It Forward — A Writing Workshop. Maybe it’s just the thing you need to get back in the swing of things. Maybe there’s a grown daughter and her mother who would like to take it together.
There won’t be an advanced degree at the end of it. But I think we can safely predict that there will be advancement — in writing, in joy-building activities that we call play, and in opening up to possibility. Register or ask questions here.
This is a modified version of a post that first appeared at lauralynnbrown.com.