A few days ago I spoke with my mom on the phone, as I do nearly every week. Our conversation turned to reminiscences of my childhood, and then more specifically, the playroom. I grew up in an otherwise unremarkable small ranch house on a nondescript street in the suburbs of a typical large midwestern city. My mom told me that when she and my dad were looking at houses (needing more space due to my imminent arrival into the world), they had absolutely no interest in houses such as this. It was a persistent real estate agent who convinced them to just take a look, and unwittingly changed the lives of everyone in our family (even those who didn't exist yet) and so many others.
As they walked through the house for the first time, guided by the owner who happened to be a professional basketball player for the hometown Milwaukee Bucks, my parents were thoroughly unimpressed. While the house had sufficient space for their growing family, and was thoughtfully laid out, there was not a single aspect of the interior design or decor that they found appealing. As my mom said, "Everything about the inside of that house had to go". Finding almost nothing desirable about the first floor, my parents were on the verge of writing off the house and continuing to explore other options. Then, the basketball player opened a door off the kitchen and led them down a flight of stairs and into a space that would change everything. The playroom.
Turning a tight corner at the bottom of the stairs, my parents entered a cavernous, and surprisingly well finished rec room. It ran almost the entire length of the house (some 50 feet). Nestled in the far end of the room was a large pool table, and a nook halfway along the west wall housed a wet bar. The walls were floor to ceiling fake wood panelling. My parents, looking into this vast, inviting space, could see endless possibilities and were almost immediately sold on the house.
For as long as I can remember, that playroom was a fantasyland. A kingdom. A Never Never Land for my older brother and I, and, a few years later, my younger brother as well. My parents chose to give us children free reign in the playroom, which they stocked with several mattresses, numerous pillows and old couch cushions, weathered but sturdy couches, blankets, every kind of ball imaginable, a set of giant tinker toys (the largest were about three feet long!) and so many other wonderful things. It was left up to my brothers and I to explore and discover all of the fun that could be had with those things in our basement playroom kingdom.
Over the years, my brother and I, and so many of our friends experimented, discovered and invented seemingly infinitely ways to have to fun the playroom. We adapted every sport you can think of, and even some you probably can't, to work within the space. We built fort after fort after fort, and even did Halloween haunted houses that became so popular within our neighborhood that we had to distribute tickets to limit the crowds waiting on our driveway. We wedged the mattresses into the narrow stairwell and played king of the hill. We used a mini exercise trampoline, piles of mattresses and pillows, and a Little Tykes basketball hoop to put on slam dunk contests. We raced through the playroom and storage area on big wheels and roller blades. We created "perilous" escape challenges, burying ourselves under pillows wedged into the classic Little Tykes playhouse to see if we could dig our way out.
And with each and every one of those adventures (with the exception of the haunted houses), it was entirely up to us kids to create our own forms of play. Our parents did join us from time to time, but always played by our rules (unless our chosen form of play was deemed too dangerous, but that was a rare occurrence). If my brother or I or any of our friends were ever involved in a dispute or disagreement, it was up to us to resolve it (except in the more serious instances, of which there were very few).
I don't think my parents realized it, but by filling the playroom with all manner of interesting things, but leaving it up to my brothers and I to find the fun, they were actually early pioneers of the adventure play model that has steadily been growing in recent years. Knowing what I now know about the importance of play in child development, and particularly kid-directed play and rough and tumble play, I cannot thank my parents enough for giving my brothers and I the playroom. As someone who most likely has ADHD but has no intention of getting a formal diagnosis (I consider it a superpower of sorts), I think my success in school had a lot to do with the fact that I could more easily contain my abundant energy at school, knowing that as soon as I got home, I could let it run free in the playroom. I also have become very good at creative problem solving, which you learn very quickly when you decide you want to play baseball in a long and very narrow basement space, or build the most awesome fort ever, or put on a stunt show, or escape from being buried alive under pillows in a playhouse.
I was so fortunate to have that playroom growing up. I think it was absolutely the single most important non-human influence on me as a person. I know not everyone is so lucky to have a space where all of their adventures can take flight, and dreams can come true. But that is what drives me to continue sharing my love of improv with teachers and adults. You may not have a physical playroom to dream and go on adventures, but the world of improv, even when physical space is limited, is an infinite playroom for the mind and the soul.
I cannot say enough about the importance unstructured play. Please find time for your children and your students to engage in unstructured play. And that goes for you too. There are so many adventures to be had, discoveries to be made, laughs to be shared, and minds, bodies and souls to be nourished and enriched. Indulge your inner child, and find the fun wherever you are.
And now, you've been looking at a screen long enough. Go PLAY!