We Are All Outsiders: Play is Our Way IN

We were in Japan last week, and I was reminded of the exhilaration of immersing myself in a brand new culture.  We quite literally did not know how to do the most basic things: board the escalators, eat the amazing food, or flush the toilets.  Relying on cues from the local Japanese was the only window we had into cultural expectations.

·         The line of pedestrians standing along the left side of the escalator signaled that we were to keep a lane open on the right for those commuters rushing to catch their train.

·         The full shoe cubbies by the doorway to the restaurant clued us to take our own shoes off before entering.

·         I had to guess on the toilets.*

I am reminded that life between adults and children is a cross-cultural exercise of its own, with each party an outsider in the world of the other.


The world that adults inhabit is one full of implicit rules and systems: chairs are used for sitting, forks are used for eating, and beds are used for sleeping.  Children spend their days as outsiders in our world, constantly chided for not following “The Rules.”  They balk and rebel, not because they are malicious or mischievous, but because they are weary from the effort it takes to live in the world as an outsider.

·         What do you mean this chair is not for jumping off of?

·         Eating this curly pasta with my hands is SO much easier than my fork!

·         This bed makes a great trampoline.

Sometimes, we can adjust our strict rules to accommodate the needs of our children, but at some level, learning the rules of the adult world is end goal of childhood.  Successful adults have managed to assimilate these rules, finding ways to meet their needs while living within the expectations of a community.

The ways we bring our children into our culture while respecting and honoring their own ways of being is one of the most critical and delicate dances we do. 

Our life on the ship has brought a steep increase in “Rules.” Handrails intended for steadying oneself while walking on a rocking ship masquerade as monkey bars. Carpeted hallways and dining areas beg for bare feet.

When we first boarded the ship, I was overwhelmed by the demands of our new community.  I found myself yelling more and trying to force my children to “behave” according to the rules of our new shipboard culture.  But learning is impossible when you feel angry, frustrated, unappreciated, and disrespected.  I know this, and still, I was grasping.

As I stopped to reflect, I realized the kind of cultural miscommunication that was unfolding:

In my world, the rules make sense.  Without handrails, we could easily fall down when the ship unexpectedly lurches.  Without shoes, we risk contracting illnesses that are tracked from dusty streets onto the ship, or at the very least, getting our toes stepped on by all the bodies negotiating a relatively small space.

In my children’s world, the rules are illogical.  These handrails are the perfect height for swinging, and we don’t wear shoes in the house at home.

One way to ease the cultural breakdown between adults and children is to become an insider.  To truly talk to my children in a language they understand requires that I assume their roles and walk in their shoes.


In short, to help my children adjust to life in this new setting, we need to play more together. 

When I play with my children,

·         we find a common language.

·         we reverse the power roles.

·         we model tools of negotiating and communicating.

All the lectures in the world won’t substitute for the time we spend pretending to be whimsical fairies, powerful witches, the patients of very eager doctors, or the pupils of very enthusiastic teachers. 

The day after I realized what was going on, we spent our time during “Ship School” (more on that later) climbing together under the tables, and making hats out of pipe cleaners.

I assumed the roles that were given to me.  I was a farmer with Simone, and we built pens for our animals.  The witches, Desmond and Tekoa, kept sneaking in at night to blow over the pens with a forceful breath.  Simone and I acted, morning after imaginary morning, the utter surprise at finding our animals, once again, out of their pens.  The play was growing chaotic.  As I observed this script unfolding, I decided to introduce a twist – working as an insider to enrich their ideas of power and friendship.    

“Simone, the witches keep knocking down our animal’s houses.  Maybe they are lonely.  If we write letters for the witches, maybe they will know that they have friends, and they won’t knock over our pens anymore.”

As you might expect, there is power in building friendships, and the four of us acted out a creative and magical friendship toward one another.

I will confess to you that this is hard for me.  I am not, by nature, a very playful person.  But playing with children is profound, and so my imperative is to find ways to nurture my own playful spirit.  The scripts we write together become the ways we define our relationships.

Our third and fourth days in Japan were easier than our first and second, because the basic requirements of day-to-day life were becoming clear.  The more we practice crossing the cultural divide that exists between the world of adults and children, the more we nurture respect for the ways of understanding that we each possess.


* You should SEE the toilets in Japan.  Of course, there are the more traditional squat toilets, which fascinated my children to no end.  But there were the most sophisticated western style toilets you could imagine: heated seats, background music of a waterfall that played when the sensor was triggered, multiple bidet selections (multiple spray choices, directional adjustments, and a pressure gauge to change the flow of the water), and one button that looked like a call for help.

While I am sailing, I have no access to the internet.  I can email, and I have a wonderful friend who is posting all of my articles for me while I am gone. (Thank you, Noémia!)  This is my shameless plea for your help in publicizing my work.  If you enjoy what you read, would you consider sharing it with your Facebook and Twitter networks?  Thank you!

Categories: Caregivers, Open-Ended Play, Play, Travel with Children | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “We Are All Outsiders: Play is Our Way IN

  1. Pingback: The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Child Today: Let Them PLAY! | Abundant Life Children

  2. Erika Cedillo

    Thank you Emily, I love your posts! And I feel like you about considering myself not very playful so I also do the effort and I’ve found myself having great times with my kids. Your post reminds me of being mindful of the way they look at the world, when I do that, my perspective has changed the way I approach certain situations. I find myself so immerse in the routine and the rush that I assume they always should remember what is next, so now I’m practicing to go slower, to repeat the expectations or the steps that follow and trying to be playful at the same time to make it fun. I’ve used your advice of taking them out of the situation while explaining them and although it is hard for them, after the stormy situation we are able to talk about it and the next time it goes a little bit easier. Enjoy your trip and thanks for continue posting!

  3. Cassie Yoshimi

    Hi! I’m a reader originally from Auatralia but now living in Japan. I have to say that the fancy complicated toilets are a huge perk of living here.
    I teach here in an international kindergarten and have implemented some of your ideas into my classroom. Thank you for sharing your ideas and experiences!

  4. Rhees

    This is terrific! But how does playing lead to not climbing on the railings? Is it that you’re doing what they want, so they feel you value their ideas and they’ll later do what you want (mutual respect)? I expect you’re still telling them the same thing re: railings and bare feet (railings are for holding, etc.). Even as the railings and bare feet become non-issues, you’ll continually encounter new things. Are you hoping that the relationship-building through play will lead to your children listen to you as you tell them how to respond (and not to respond) to new things? Assuming this doesn’t work perfectly, how do you respond then, in the moment? Thank you!

    • Hi Rhees, Thank you so much for your comment. Yes – you are exactly right. By entering my child’s culture through play, I am communicating respect that they will be able to return when I am asking them to enter my culture. Plus, as I see the world through their eyes, I begin to empathize with the assumptions I am making as an “insider” of my own culture. I realize that asking them to not climb on the railings requires that they suspend their way of seeing the world in order to comply with a set of (what seem to be) arbitrary regulations. As for what to do when they don’t comply, that’s a longer post.🙂 In short, I do what I can to remove them from the situation — “I won’t let you climb” and I pick them up. Or, “I won’t let you run without shoes on. Do you want to put them on or shall I?” Lots of empathizing, connecting, and so on. “I know you wish you could climb. It’s a bummer to have these great handrails that are not for climbing!” Hope that helps! Thank you!! Warmly, Emily

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