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.”