Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Opportunity Missed....An Opportunity Taken

Some memories stick with you.

My wife and I were traveling and stopped into a pizza restaurant for dinner. As we entered we saw a dad and his daughter, maybe 4 years old, sitting at opposite sides of a booth.  Because both were leaning over the table, their heads were pretty close together. They looked as though they might be whispering secrets or telling each other jokes.  Who knew?  But it was a dad and his daughter obviously sharing a special time together.  My wife turned to me and said, "This reminds me of you on one of your daddy-daughter nights."

It was only as we walked past them to our own table that we saw the full picture.  The dad and his daughter were both leaning over the table they shared......and each was intimately involved with a personal digital device.  The father was typing on his ipad and the daughter was watching a movie on her portable dvd player. 

I suppose it’s the missed opportunity that I remember.

Right now I am on an airplane sitting two rows behind another dad and his daughter - maybe 3 years old.  (Mom is across the aisle.)  There has been LOTS of talking, LOTS of laughing, plenty of books, and even a bit of active "hugging and crashing" play that was, the mom thought, too rough for an airplane. 

And I am smiling at an opportunity that is being taken full advantage of. 

I’m flying back from Colorado where I led a concert sponsored by the Denver Public Library.  They take the American Library Association’s Every Child Ready to Read initiative very seriously and, I’m honored to say, arranged a concert with me as a developmental play experience for families. 

Every Child Ready to Read is research-based, but remains wonderfully simple and straightforward with its message.  Five simple practices are recommended that prepare a young child to succeed at reading and, of course, succeed in school.  For this type of success, the American Library Association recommends that parents, caregivers and young children:

Talk together.
Sing together.
Play together.
Read together.
Write together.

The idea behind my concert in Denver was to engage children, parents and grandparents in a joyful experience of singing, playing and even playfully reading together in the hopes that this kind of play will continue at home.  I had a wonderful time…….but I’m having just as much fun watching this dad and his daughter on the plane. 

It’s unlikely that the dad, sitting two rows ahead of me, is familiar with Every Child Ready to Read.  I’m sure he’s talking and reading and playing with his daughter because it’s a way to pass the time.  And when you have an opportunity to have your 3 year old on your lap giggling and cuddling, it’s a great way to pass the time.  That’s the beauty of the library initiative.  It’s not a set of chores to “add on” to our already busy lives.  It’s a set of practices that fit into a joyous life with a child. 

And, for the record, I doubt that the child in the restaurant is doomed to school failure.  It doesn’t work that way. 

But, sitting on this airplane, I can see that the dad in the restaurant missed two opportunities.  He missed the opportunity to do a few things that, research shows, promote development.  And he missed the opportunity to have as much fun as the dad ahead of me is having. 

For more information on Every Child Ready to Read, visit:

And here is some footage of children, parents and grandparents singing and playing together at a recent concert of mine:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Twenty Years of Music Play

I sometimes tell people that I began calling my songs “music play” when I realized that I was interested in more than just performing songs for children.  I wanted some way of expressing that the songs are created as an invitation for children and the adults that care for them to play together. 

That’s true, but the full story is a bit more involved.

I invented the term “music play” when my producer (and good friend) Steve Rashid tried to –in the nicest way – help me understand that my songs could really be improved with a bit of….well… writing. 

Our discussion began with a consideration of the title song of my first recording , Jim Gill Sings The Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes:

Please don’t feed me black-eyed peas.
You know what they will do.
For if you feed me black-eyed peas
I’ll have to sneeze.

(and the children shout)

(The verses repeat with “macaroni and cheese” and “chocolate chip cookies.”)

Steve sat at his piano and said, “The sneezing itself is not part of the melody.  And the piece stops and starts and stop and starts.  There is no consistent rhythm.   Don’t take this wrong, but it’s not really a song.”  He then demonstrated some ways that we could “musicalize” the sneezes and employ other techniques to craft a more traditional song. 

He was right…….if a person is thinking “musically.”  But I knew that “The Sneezing Song” was, in its simplest form, a favorite in the play groups that I led each week for children and families.  Children loved the anticipation before the big exclamatory sneezes.  In fact, that was really the point.  It was a game.  A waiting game with some simple rhymes.  And the simplicity allowed children of all abilities to be a part of the play. 

I told Steve that I could imagine that his ideas would make the piece a better song, but that I was afraid it would take something away from the game.  And, for me, conveying the play was the point. 

I finally said, “That’s the point with all of these songs.  They are really music play.”

Steve and I have developed a great partnership, beginning with that conversation 20 years ago.  We have both developed a sense of when, in a recorded piece, the music is the primary means to get children singing and dancing along.  Steve’s expertise is required in those instances.

And we have come to recognize when the play is most important and it’s best to keep it simple: 


Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Habit of Happiness

I had the honor of being quoted in a recent newspaper op-ed piece that emphasized the importance of parents and children spending time playing together.  Here is what I said:

"In my lectures and workshops I have spent so much time detailing how there are SO MANY developmental benefits to parents getting involved in play with their children that I fear I may have neglected to mention the most important reason of all. It's a joy! When we take time to play with our children we are sharing the habit of happiness with them. That's a habit we can hope they hold on to for the rest of their lives."

The habit of happiness.  I was proud of that line!  Perhaps I should use that phrase more often!

But when the piece appeared in the newspaper I started thinking.......maybe those words are simply too good to just happen to roll off my tongue.  Had I heard this phrase or read this line before?  If so, where could that have been?  I had a suspicion.

If something simple and profound has been written about play, I thought, it most likely can be traced back to Maria Piers.  She was one of the founders of the Erikson Institute and taught the celebrated course on play there for many years.  Sure enough, this morning I found my copy of The Gift of Play and discovered, on pages 43 and 44, this passage:

"........pretend one of the most valuable kinds, perhaps the most valuable kind, of play in which preschoolers can engage.  Such play develops creativity, intellectual competence, emotional strength and stability - and, wonderfully, feelings of joy and pleasure.  The habit of being happy."

So I did not use Maria's exact words.......and I used them in a different context: in my case,  in a discussion of parent-child play.  But the key phrase that makes you stop and think and smile - "the habit of being happy" - belongs to Maria Piers. 

I hadn't read The Gift of Play in over fifteen years.  This morning, as I sat and read it again,  I realized just how influential the book - and its simple wisdom - has been in my own work and my own way of thinking.   In fact, as I read through the book I realized that one of my goals, writing a book about play, is rather silly.  The book I'd like to write has already been written.  It's called, of course, The Gift of Play, co-authored by Maria Piers and Genevieve Millet Landau (who was editor-in-chief of Parents’ Magazine). 

Sadly, the book, published in 1980, has been out of print for many years.   I found my copy long ago at a used bookstore.

On this read I couldn't stop myself from highlighting passage after passage.  In future posts I'll share some of my favorites.  And I promise to give Maria full credit for her gift of using truly inspiring language to celebrate play.