The child saw a giant cardboard box and suggested it was a pirate ship. Even if pirate fiction wasn’t one of my own special interests, I would have been on board immediately (ha ha, pun intended), but since it *is*, I was all over that idea. I didn’t know where the game would take us, but he invited me to step into the pirate ship with him, so I did, my brain kicking into “figure it out” mode as I thought about where we could go through play.
He ordered me out of the ship and I said “aye aye, Captain.” Giggling, he began pushing the cardboard box around the room (proprioceptive/heavy work, a very soothing and self-regulating type of sensory input!)
When we passed by my “old papers” on the floor — papers stained with tea or coffee to become brown, and then crumpled up a lot — I knew what to do. “Look Captain, maps!” I said, immediately grabbing a marker that was right next to the papers and beginning to draw an X with a meandering dotted line leading up to it.
This is why I keep all types of paper and other writing surfaces, markers and other markmaking tools, in like 50 different places around my room — so they’re always at hand to be a part of spontaneous child-led play, to model how writing and drawing can be a meaningful and delightful part of their own independent play. (Because if a child doesn’t find what we’re doing to be meaningful and delightful, then they won’t play it on their own — then all I’ve done is make them do work for 30 minutes a week or 30 minutes a month, but what is that going to accomplish? Compared to if they see it as delightful, and play it themselves!)
He is usually hesitant to write or draw. Not today. He had a marker in his hands too, one second after the marker was in mine. He began drawing from the other side of the paper. “Yes, and we pass by a volcano,” he added, drawing it in.
“Yes! And another trap…there’s some rocks that could fall on us,” I said, modeling a very simple drawing with circles and lines. I try never to draw exceedingly above a kid’s drawing level; it’s the quickest way to discourage them and get them to say “you just do it for me,” so I make sure that my drawings are close to what they could accomplish on their own.
“And when we get there, it’s this island,” he said, adding an island around the X that marked the spot.
“And there’s a mermaid who sings and tries to trap us,” I said, making a stick figure mermaid.
“And she has a sign warning about it…” he said, drawing a sign that was too small to parse after the fact, but because I was sitting there watching him, I could see the purposeful motions of his markers.
“Oh, it’s a skull and crossbones!” I said proudly, to affirm him in what he had drawn even though it was a little hard to tell because the markers were too wide. He nodded.
“I think we have to pass by another pirate ship,” I said, drawing a small stick figure ship that mimicked one he had made with magnet stamps on a magna-doodle earlier.
“Yes, and that’s it,” he said. His tolerance for writing was starting to wear off; this was already a long time for him to focus.
“I have one more idea,” I said, seeing if I could nudge open the window of tolerance just slightly. “I was thinking about a sea monster?”
“OH YES,” he said, delighted with the new inspiration, and drew a huge circle on the paper with lots of squiggles going out from it and an angry face. I narrated as he drew: “Oh, he’s a HUGE sea monster! With so many tentacles to grab ships. And he looks mad and hungry!”
“Okay, NOW it’s done,” he said, grabbing the map and racing off to begin pushing the ship around again. I followed quickly with full enthusiasm.
He stopped when he realized the map didn’t actually mirror our room in any way — the path was just random dotted lines, not actually tracing something. He had a hard time imagining it. “Well, what do we do?”
I pointed at the rocks falling. “I think we have to go very carefully so rocks don’t fall on us.”
“Okay,” he said hesitantly, pushing the ship around the floor in a random direction, not sure where else to carry the play.
I ran to get a big grey yoga ball from the corner. When he saw me he began laughing in extreme delight, realizing where I was going with this. “You better dodge these rocks!” I yelled, tossing the yoga ball in a wide underhand arc that was aimed to go a couple of feet to the left of him even if he didn’t move, but he jumped into the game wholeheartedly. “SAIL!!!!” He yelled, pushing the ship as fast as he could and the ball bounced to the ground and rolled away.
Now he knew what to do. He looked at the map. “Cover your ears,” he said. “Those mermaids are tricking you.”
I grinned and played along. “But it’s so beautiful!”
“No! Cover your ears!”
I covered my ears. Unable to resist the chance to comment on sensory feelings in my/our bodies, to give him language to talk about his own feelings, I said, “wow, it’s so muffled when I cover my ears. It’s like the room noise is all turned down.”
“Yeah, and the mermaids,” he said, pushing the ship forward. “Uh oh, now there’s pirates out there.”
I went and jumped on top of a mat nearby and yelled “Yarrrr, I’m the pirates! Fire the cannons at that captain!”
“Fire my cannons back!” he yelled, and I did a very dramatic scene of being blown clear off my ship and into the water.
I swam back across the ocean and climbed back onto his ship with him. “OK…uh oh, I think there’s sea monsters up here…”
“I haven’t seen them yet,” he said, giggling.
I had an idea. I ran to grab my green beanbag. He started laughing again when he saw me coming. I ran up to him, made sure from his body language and facial expression that he understood and consented to what I was doing, and then reached out the beanbag and touched him with it. “CAPTAIN!!! It’s got you!!!”
He leapt full-force into it, jumping off the boat and pulling the beanbag down so it landed on him and around him, so I also made it squish him a few times (more proprioceptive/deep pressure input). “CAPTAIN!!! Get out of there! Grab my hand!”
He grabbed my hand and climbed out of the beanbag. “We have to take that thing down!! There’s only one way to do it. We have to climb inside of it and get its heart!”
“Climb inside of it?? Captain, that’s impossible!!!”
“No it’s not!” He grinned at me and ran over to my green tunnel that goes between two tents. He grabbed a star-shaped rubber floor marker as he went. “We have to climb in and get its heart with my ninja stars!”
“If you think that’s the best way!” I eyed the tunnel carefully. “I don’t know if I’ll fit!”
“No, you don’t. You’re too big. I’ll have to do this…on my own,” he said dramatically. It was a performance that could have won an award.
Then he crawled into the tunnel.
“Ewww Captain, you’re going into its throat! This is disgusting!” I yelled encouragingly from the outside.
He crawled out the other side of the tunnel. “I’m in its tummy!” He began doing mock martial arts moves in the air. “I’m kicking its heart and beating it up! I…I…I GOT IT!!”
“Is there anything else left? Give me that map,” he said. “Uh oh, there’s a volcano. It’s erupting in the distance—RUNNNN!”
We ran full speed across the gym, making it to the side where my swing and couch are at. He jumped up on the mat that protects the floor under the swing.
“It’s the final island,” he said happily. “But….there’s no X here.”
“I know what it means,” I said, grabbing something from my pile of random stuff that I haven’t put away yet. “I think it’s this!”
“Whoa. A portal!” he said, looking down at the glittering board that I don’t really know why I have.
“A portal!” I agreed.
“Let’s jump in!”
“Let’s do it!”
We jumped into the portal. My timer went off.
We agreed there must be treasure hidden in the depths. Maybe next week we’ll find out what the treasures are…maybe we can make a list, a captain’s log, or a drawing…
Or maybe we’ll make up something completely new. I never know. I’m not the leader and the director of the play. I just get to share in equal measure of the delight.