Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nancy J.

I met Nancy J. at Chicago’s Midway Airport while we both waited, during a delay, to board a plane.  As I was sitting in the waiting area I noticed an elderly woman in a wheelchair inching towards me from over in the pre-boarding area. 

It was Nancy.

Nancy had seen my banjo and wanted to know about my music. 

“I love music,” she said.  “It makes life better.  I’ve lost most of my vision but none of my ability to appreciate great music!” 

When I explained that I create music –mostly musical games- for young children Nancy got a big smile on her face.  When I told her that I was on my way to speak (and sing) with a group of Head Start teachers, her jaw dropped.

“Years ago I directed a Head Start program in Texas!  It was back in 1967, soon after the program started.”

She then volunteered the philosophy that she ensured was the foundation of her program in Texas. 

“I told the staff not to teach, but to let the children play.  Now, of course, we’d step in and help if a child was frustrated or needed help, but my philosophy was – and still is with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren – that children learn ten times as much when playing than they would if we decided what they should learn and if we were simply satisfied with that.  And, more than that, we learn so much about the children by watching them play!”

She went on to describe her excitement, after more than 40 years, for the way that Head Start provided a boost for the entire family through some of its innovative programs and included children with special needs. 

But it was Nancy’s insight about play that was so inspiring to me.  She mentioned, over and over, the fact that play provides an opportunity for us to learn about the children as much as it does for the children to learn.  And, of course, that knowledge makes us better teachers. 

“You just have to watch and pay attention.  I’ve got macular degeneration so I’ve lost my central vision, but I still watch my grandchildren play and learn with my peripheral vision!” 

Nancy ended up reserving a seat on the plane for me so that we could talk throughout the flight.  When I was ready to leave (she was staying on the plane and flying on to Dallas) I told her how much I enjoyed meeting her and talking with her about our enthusiasm for play.

“What a coincidence,” I said. 

“It may not be a coincidence,” Nancy answered.  “It could be that we just pay closer attention to the things that connect us.” 


  1. beautiful story! The wisdom we can learn from our elders.

  2. Great story, Jim! Wise words from Nancy J.: "You just have to watch and pay attention." And she did. She saw your banjo!


    1. Exactly! What I love is that what she described as her practice in working with children.....being a great observer......continues to be the way that she lives her life. She had to be close to 80 and was so full of life! I think being a "watcher" keeps a person young!

  3. I love those serendipitous moments!!! It's what makes life so great.

  4. I've just discovered your blog through the article about you on the Developing Melodies web site. It's so refreshing to find another blogger who is focused on children's music and play-based learning, and who is that rarest of things in the ECE world, a male.

    Your emphasis on the central importance of play as the key for all early childhood learning, including music, aligns with my own philosophy. Like you I have a degree in child development (just a bachelor degree, in my case) and I'm also directly involved in play-based children's music although not as a performer.

    I worked for years in child care here in Perth, Western Australia, but I now run play-based, hands-on instrumental music programs for children in early childhood settings using instruments I make myself from junk and recycled materials.

    I will be adding your blog to my own blog post which lists males who blog about play and early childhood at

    Regards, Alec

    1. I'm so glad that you learned about my work as you did.....and I am so glad to learn about yours! I will check out the blog site you mentioned and subscribe! It is, indeed, rare to come across men with our particular let's keep in touch!