Life lessons from the playground

March 14th, 2018

When asked to name their favorite school subject, many elementary students say “recess.” If asked, my vote would have been the same. But back then, surveys had not yet been invented. Nor had computers, individual cheese slices, or unleaded gasoline. Only a few memories of my grade school years remain, and one involves recess.

The paved area behind our school featured six basketball backboards and rims; two for sixth-graders, two for fifth, and one each for third and second grades. First graders and kindergartners could watch, but had to stay out of the way. Recess has its own set of unwritten, yet tightly enforced rules for how playground life works. Ask any grade school student. As a third grader, I knew the rules.

So when Tracey, a classmate, committed one of the few basketball infractions (thou shalt not trip the player with the ball—intentionally), I called it. He disagreed. I stood my ground. Words became shouts became shoves, and someone threw a punch. One of us hit back. The action on all courts stopped to watch. The playground monitor whistled at us right as the bell rang to return inside. Our friends stepped between us and around us, preventing anyone from identifying the fighters so no one would be sent to the principal’s office. After all, recess has its own set of unwritten, yet tightly enforced rules about how playground life works.    

Once back in our class, Tracey and I sat at opposite ends of the room—both still visibly steamed. Emotions were so obvious that our teacher, Ms. Lybrook, asked me to join her in the hallway. Everyone, including me, assumed I was in trouble for the fight. With a tender voice that I’m sure mimics an angel, she said, “You’re upset. Go ahead and tell me what happened.”

After describing the egregious act Tracey committed, and my appropriate call for justice, I started to cry. She gently took my hand with one of hers and wiped away my tears with her other. As she did, we talked about how the playground is supposed to work; Ms. Lybrook seemed to know a lot. Then she said, “Some people just don’t understand things like you do. Now, why don’t you go get a drink at the fountain and you won’t be so upset.”

In that moment, I learned that a few sips of cold water actually do a great job to wash away upset feelings. The fact that some people don’t understand things the way I do has also stayed with me across the decades that followed. So did the power of forgiveness, which Tracey and I extended to one another when he joined us in the hallway.

With closer scrutiny, this episode illustrates two truths that transcend time to benefit anyone who serves children.

Although she owned responsibility for all her students, dealing with Tracey and David was most certainly not a part of that morning’s curriculum or lesson plan. In fact, the whole episode interrupted her schedule. Big church must follow an order of service or adults get upset, but that’s not the case in children’s ministry. So here’s the first truth:

When working with kids, learn to embrace interruptions.

Why? Because children have this way of occasionally leaking out a little bit of what real life looks like and feels like—according to them. The best children’s curriculum available will never match the effectiveness of talking with a child about life in the way he or she really experiences it. (Key note to qualify that statement: My previous job included creating and selling a lot of children’s ministry curriculum.)

To transfer this truth from a mere concept into a ministry value, take two steps. First, tell everyone who works with children to embrace interruptions as opportunities—a message worthy of frequent repetition. Then, affirm those teachers and volunteers who experience an opportunity to go off-script and have real talk with one or more kids. Share the stories, as appropriate. You can tell what’s important to a ministry team by what they celebrate. The next truth will increase your odds of real talk happening.     

Ms. Lybrook knew enough about how the playground works to know how to react in a manner that didn’t diminish, demean, or delete the recess realities that Tracey and I faced, no matter how big or small they seemed. She never told us who was right or wrong. She never offered her opinion. She didn’t send us to the principal’s office, even though we deserved the trip. Instead, she appealed to the good side that she saw in both little boys. Here’s the second truth:

Rather than always correcting kids, which emphasizes the negatives, look for the good side—it’s in every student’s heart just waiting to be invited out.

Yes, rules must be in place. Yes, consequences must exist. Yet, so must patience. And grace. And compassion. And love.

Anyone can blow a whistle to end a disruption. The extraordinary ones, though, care more for little hearts than following a plan. They’ll stop everything to make a difference; it’s an unwritten rule of how their lives work. Thank you, Ms. Lybrook, for showing us what extraordinary looks like. And for telling me to get a drink of water.   

comments powered by Disqus