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Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov for the New York Times
A girl performing during a hobbyhorse competition in Helsinki in March 2019.

Now here’s an unusual pastime: hobbyhorse competitions. Who knows how these things get started with kids? They make up their own fun. It starts out as private play, under the radar, and before you know it, it’s on TV.

Ellen Barry reported from Finland for the New York Times. “A dozen girls waited in line in a Helsinki arena for the dressage competition, ready to show off their riding skills, their faces masks of concentration.

“The judge put them through their paces — walk, trot, canter — and then asked them for a three-step rein-back, that classic test of a dressage horse’s training and obedience. The judge looked on gravely, occasionally taking notes.

“If anyone thought it strange that the girls were riding sticks, no one let on. The make-believe world of the hobbyhorse girls extended as far as the eye could see.

“A veterinarian lectured girls on hobbyhorse vaccination schedules, saying ‘check that the eyes are clear and there is no nasal discharge.’ The girls discussed hobbyhorse bloodlines and hobbyhorse temperaments, hobbyhorse training routines and hobbyhorse diets. There were rhinestone-studded bridles for sale. …

“ ‘The normal things, that normal girls like, they don’t feel like my things,’ [Fanny Oikarinen, 11,] said. But she is at home in the world of hobbyhorses, where boys and grown-ups have no place.

“Fanny and her friend, Maisa Wallius, are training for summertime competitions. They have choreographed a two-part dressage routine to a song by Nelly, the rapper. Asked which types of girls are drawn to hobbyhorses, Maisa thinks for a while before answering.

“ ‘Some are sports girls,’ she said. ‘Some are really lonely girls. And some can be the coolest girl at school.’

“It is impossible to say exactly when the Finnish hobbyhorse craze began, because it spread for years under the radar before adults became aware of it.

“In 2012, a filmmaker, Selma Vilhunen, stumbled across internet discussion boards used by hobbyhorse enthusiasts and was enraptured.

“Teenage girls had invented a form of hobbyhorse dressage, in which the rider’s lower body pranced and galloped like a horse, while her upper body remained erect and motionless like a rider. This evolved into an elaborate network of coaches and students and competitions, but it was discussed only online, for the most part.

“ ‘It was like a secret society,’ Ms. Vilhunen said.

“One of the girls she sought out as a guide to the hobbyhorse scene was Alisa Aarniomaki, a teenager from a city on Finland’s west coast.

“Leather-jacketed and fuchsia-haired, Ms. Aarniomaki was a celebrity in the online world for her hand-sewn hobbyhorses and riding videos, but she was apprehensive about letting her classmates know about it. When she was 12, some friends happened to spot her practicing in the woods near her school, and teased her for playing a child’s game. …

“When Ms. Vilhunen’s documentary film, ‘Hobbyhorse Revolution,’ was released in 2017, it captured its subjects in long spells of raucous joy. This was important to the filmmaker, who has made adolescent girls the focus of much of her work.

“ ‘Little girls are allowed to be strong and wild,’ she said. ‘I think the society starts to shape them into a certain kind of quietness when they reach puberty.’ …

“Within the rapidly expanding community of enthusiasts, the problem of ridicule really doesn’t come up. ‘I haven’t run into that sort of situation in a long time,’ [Ms. Aarniomaki] said. ‘I live in a bubble that is filled with hobbyhorses.’ ”

More here.

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Dolls that used to attend my “school.” I’m sorry to say that the book We Grow Up was pilfered from my second grade classroom.

On the third floor landing in the house where I spent most of my childhood, there was an alcove with a window and a couch. On nice days, the sun streamed in and revealed the perfect spot to set up a space of my own. I called it “The Little House” and hung signs around to indicate it was off-limits to everyone else.

In my space, which eventually evolved into “The Little School,” I set out all the toys related to keeping house or teaching school. The two pupils above I had received earlier. Susie, on the right, is still my favorite. She came into my life when I was 5. The cape is the original, but I don’t know what happened to the blue- and white-striped dress Susie arrived with, or her black shoes and white knee socks.

On the left is Toni, who when I was 7 brought along her hair curlers and styling lotion, courtesy of the Toni hair-perm company. I was an easy grader as a teacher but firm about hard work.

I suppose that whatever children most like to play with reflects their interests and is a way of practicing something grown-ups do that looks like it might be fun. I myself moved on from teaching dolls to using teaching as a camp counselor, a parent, an editor — and an actual teacher.

Nowadays, girls don’t seem to spend as much time with dolls, but nurturing remains a life skill worthy of being practiced by any child. When today’s small daughters enter the workforce (let’s say daughters for the sake of argument), will those engineering and truck driving jobs be the ones that are available? Young adults will probably invent new kinds of jobs, and who knows? Maybe nurturing will be useful in those fields, too. Certainly, there will always be a need for nurturing parents, caregivers, and teachers.

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Actor Finn Wittrock wrote recently at the New York Times about helping to start a mini Shakespeare company in the 1990s to entertain his parents and other theater professionals. He recalls with wonder his young self’s confidence of success.

“I was born in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. I lived there until I was 6, then moved to Evanston, Ill., and later to Los Angeles. But every summer for most of my youth, I would go back East with my brother, my mom and my dad, who most summers was acting or teaching for Shakespeare & Company. I would often be cast as a page or an altar boy in one of the professional productions.

“I went in lieu of a summer camp; I went to romp in the Berkshires, see old friends, get out of the city. But mostly I went for the Very Young Company.

“Starting at the age of 8 and until I was 16, my oldest friends and I would get together every summer: Rory, Reilly, Wolfe, and later my brother, Dylan, and Wolfe’s brother, Tiger (yes, their real names) would arrange five or six scenes from Shakespeare, rehearse them on our own time in the sun-drenched Berkshire afternoons and perform them for the adult company after one of their Mainstage shows. We began the company ourselves and it ended when we were no longer ‘very young.’

“For a kid, it was an epic undertaking; an outlet for pre- and post-adolescent energies. We were totally self-motivated; nobody told us to do it, which was in itself an incentive. We’d choose a scene based on our own criteria: Had the company done it before? Could we make fun of them for it? Could we put Reilly in a wig and have him play a girl? And, most important: Did it end in a sword fight? …

Sometimes I yearn to have the boldness of one who knows nothing, who jumps onstage for no other reason than because he is young and has a loud voice.”

Later in his essay, Wittrock recalls something the celebrated director Mike Nichols once said about his own early years: ” ‘Why was I so confident back then? I had no business being that confident.’ And yet he attributed most of his early success to that unreasonable confidence. …

“No one gave us permission to do the Very Young Company; no one ordered us to do it, and no one had to boost our confidence to do it. We just did it. We were just kids howling Shakespeare to the Berkshire trees, and our readiness was all.” More at the New York Times, here.

At one point in my  childhood, I, too, was confident. I thought, if my parents would only call the movie theater and set it up, four of us kids — the Gordons, one of my brothers, and I — would be a smashing success performing our version of “Snow White and Rose Red” before the feature. The grownups didn’t quite believe in it.

Some neighbors and I did perform an original play about a snowman for family members. One of the actors returned a copy of the pencil-scrawled script to me at my aunt’s funeral in 2002, decades later.

Photo: Lauren Lancaster for the NY Times
Finn Wittrock, right, and Rory Hammond, enacting the killing of Lady Macduff and her son in a mini-“Macbeth.” The young actors formed their own company more than 20 years ago to entertain their parents and other professionals at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

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An experimental theater piece to test the Theory of Purposefully Divided Attention to Fend Off Meltdowns.
Cast: Grandma (G), Adult One (1), Adult Two (2), Adult Three (3), Small Child (Small)
Setting: Dinner table

G: Why is your hairdresser your hero?

1: She’s a real bootstrap entrepreneur. She’ll try anything.

G: Is that a blackberry in your popsicle?

Small: No, a blueberry.

2: Well, when you have kids, you can’t participate in every charity event or random partnership.

3: You have to prioritize, be strategic. Know when to say no.

1: But she has a great community reputation. She’s so upbeat.

G: I really think that’s a blackberry. Like Mrs. Rabbit’s in Peter Rabbit. Supporting everything in the community can add up.

1: It rolls up.

3: But you can waste a lot of time.

2: And energy.

G: People are grateful, though. If you’re strategic, you miss the kind of opportunities that you have no idea where they will lead. I like the way that popsicle drips right into the holder. It’s less messy.

Small: Do you want one?

G: I don’t want to take your last popsicle.

Small: We can make more.

G: Maybe after dinner.

Small: Let’s do it!

G: Careful — the juice is spilling. One and one and 50 make a million. It’s good to be open to serendipity if you possibly can.

2: There are only so many hours in the day.

3: Numerous small investments can’t get what one big investment would.

G: Do you want a napkin?

Small: I got a green popsicle at Whole Foods, but it dripped all over my dragon shirt. It was green.

G: There is nothing like a reputation for being upbeat and cooperative. I know where we can pick blackberries for the next batch of popsicles.

Small: But you have to add juice so it sticks together.

1: We now trade services. She does that with almost everyone. I feel like she could teach a class in entrepreneurship.

G: Teach one together, how about?

Small: Do you want a popsicle? Do you want one now?

G: Maybe after dinner. Look, that’s a raspberry. Or do you think it’s a strawberry?

Small: Do you want a popsicle now? I can go get it. We can make more later. Yes or no?

G: OK. Yes.

Small: Say, Please.

G: Yes, please.

Photo: Matthew Klein

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Maura Judkis of the Washington Post blogged recently about an actor who wants the opportunity to perform in your home and will throw in a surprising service.

Judkis writes, “Fringe Festival audiences have opened their homes to Brian Feldman. He has met their families and friends, admired their art, eaten their food, handled their precious china. …

“The premise for Feldman’s show, ‘Dishwasher,’ is this: He will come to a person’s house, wash all of the dirty dishes, perform a monologue of the audience’s choosing and then conclude with a single question: ‘Am I a better actor or dishwasher?’ The answer can depend on the monologue that he cold-reads — and on how crusty that casserole dish in the sink has become. The show — the first Fringe show to take place in private homes — has sold out its entire run. …

“His [work] follows in the tradition of great performance artists such as Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovic, but it’s more playful — and in his opinion, more theatrical.

“ ‘It’s hard to define — I’m straddling the middle, and I’m always pitching it as theater,’ he said. ‘I was always more interested in theater that had a concept that was hard to define, or things that didn’t have an ending, and didn’t necessarily have a beginning.’ …

“In the week of performing the show so far, he’s dealt with messes big and small. There was the Cleveland Park home with the too-small sink.

“ ‘It was hard to wash anything,’ he said. ‘They had a door that you could enclose yourself in the kitchen. I used it to comic effect, it was almost like “Noises Off.” ‘ …

“So far, five of his hosts have told him he’s better at acting, one has said he’s better at dishwashing, and two couldn’t decide.

“ ‘I’m trying to do as good a job dishwashing as I am acting,’ he said. ‘It’s subjective, just like art.’ ”

Read how Judkis and her friends got him to read “the character of Mrs. Pringle, who is fretting about a disappointing party, from the play ‘Fourteen’ by Alice Gerstenberg. ‘This is my last dinner party — my very last — a fiasco — an utter fiasco!’ ” here.

Photo: Maura Judkis/The Washington Post
Brian Feldman performs a monologue in the writer’s home.

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I read this NY Times article with relief. It seems that educators are returning to (or perhaps being heard about) the importance of play in learning.

Reporter Motoko Rich says, “Call it Kindergarten 2.0. Concerned that kindergarten has become overly academic in recent years, this suburban school district south of Baltimore is introducing a new curriculum in the fall for 5-year-olds. Chief among its features is a most old-fashioned concept: play.

“ ‘I feel like we have been driving the car in the wrong direction for a long time,’ said Carolyn Pillow, who has taught kindergarten for 15 years and attended a training session here on the new curriculum last month. ‘We can’t forget about the basics of what these kids need, which is movement and opportunities to play and explore.’

“As American classrooms have focused on raising test scores in math and reading … even the youngest students have been affected, with more formal lessons and less time in sandboxes. But these days, states like Vermont, Minnesota and Washington are again embracing play as a bedrock of kindergarten. …

“Still, teachers like Therese Iwancio, who works at Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore’s Greenmount neighborhood, where the vast majority of children come from low-income families, say their students benefit from explicit academic instruction. She does not have a sand table, play kitchen or easel in the room. …

“Traci Burns, who has taught kindergarten for the last five years at Annapolis Elementary School, said she was looking forward to retrieving previously banished easels.

“ ‘With the Common Core, this has been pushed and pushed and pushed that kids should be reading, sitting and listening,’ she said. ‘Five-year-olds need to play and color. They need to go out and sing songs.’

“At Hilltop Elementary, a racially and economically diverse school in Glen Burnie, Melissa Maenner said she had found that teaching kindergartners too many straightforward academic lessons tended to flop.

“ ‘They are 5,’ Ms. Maenner said. ‘Their attention span is about five minutes.’ ”

Read more here.

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As a kid of 10 or so, I played in the woods, frequently all alone. It was magical.

As an adult, I wonder if it’s no longer considered safe. I don’t ever hear of children playing in the woods. That’s why I was interested to read about a growing movement called Forest Schools.

Siobhan Starrs writes for the Associated Press, “In the heart of north London lies the ancient Queens Wood, a green forest hidden away in a metropolis of more than 8 million residents. The sounds of the city seem to fade away as a group of children plays in a mud kitchen, pretending to prepare food and saw wood.

“These aren’t toddlers on a play date — it’s an unusual outdoor nursery school, the first of its kind in London, following a trend in Scandinavia, Germany and Scotland. It allows local children to learn, and let their imagination run free, completely surrounded by nature. …

“Each morning a group of children gather at the Queens Wood camp, which the nursery team prepares each morning before the children arrive. A circle of logs provides a place to gather for snacks, stories and songs. The mud kitchen provides an opportunity to make a proper mess and have a sensory experience, a rope swing provides some excitement and a challenge, and several tents are set up for naps and washing up.

“In a clearing in the woods, a fallen tree trunk can be transformed by imagination into a rocket train, calling at the beach and the moon, with leaves for tickets.

“A 2-year-old, Matilda, finds a stick — but in her mind it’s not a stick. It’s a wand. She says she is a magic fairy who can fly. Then suddenly the stick has become a drum stick, and a gnarled tree stump her drum. She taps away contentedly, the rhythm all her own.” Read more here.

Speaking of fallen tree trunks, I particularly remember a big tree that fell in the forest after a storm and the fun a friend and I had making up stories on it.

Photo: Matt Dunham/AP
Forest schools are increasing in popularity in the United Kingdom.

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