"Play is universal, has no boundaries, and introduces a person to his or her true self."
Five years ago, when I was a student substitute, I met a little boy named Burke, who was 4 years old. Burke would take my hand and lead me around the classroom during our scheduled play time. We built life-size castles, told stories, and played basketball the entire day. Suddenly, it was 4:30. I didn’t even realize that my work day was over, and I didn’t even care that I was covered in blue paint. We had spent the whole day playing—and I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time.
When I met Burke, I was going through one of the hardest times of my life. My grandfather had just passed away. Having been raised by a single mom and her parents, losing him felt like losing my father and my best friend. In my eyes, my grandfather was the epitome of perfection. He taught me to just be myself and to love every minute of it. I didn’t know how I could live in a world without him.
It helped to have a career where I was spending most of my time with toddlers.
Teaching toddlers involves careful planning that focuses on their physical, social, cognitive, and emotional development while helping them build their communication skills and even discover their personalities—mostly through play. When it comes to teaching this age group, you can’t always stick to the lesson plans. Sometimes you have to go with the flow because toddlers learn best through play and experience. I found myself doing things like making green mashed potatoes and experimenting with pudding paint to teach about taste and texture.
What I realized was . . . in playing, I was reminded of what my grandfather had instilled in me when I was younger.
When I was a child, my grandfather encouraged me to use my imagination and create whatever I wanted within the boundaries of our backyard. My creations ranged from making mud pies to building my own treehouse alongside him. He gave me space to create a sanctuary where I was free to be “all that I wanted be,” as my grandfather would say. This is something that I want to do for all of the children I interact with.
For a child, play is often spontaneous, something that you don't think about, you just do. That's the beauty of it. You just let go and be free in the moment. Of course, as a teacher I understand the adult needs to be intentional and support each child’s learning. As teachers, we need to give children space to live and play in the moment, and we need to embrace the mess that goes along with unstructured play.
Burke and his classmates showed me that teaching was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There was one day this became clear to me:
On Burke’s last day of school, he came to say goodbye to me, saying something like, “Darius, we need to have a talk!” It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Burke, who was going to go to kindergarten the next year. But I remembered the words my grandfather said to me growing up: “Our motto is that we will never say goodbye but say, ‘See you later.’” I looked Burke in the eye and said, “You have changed my life for the better! You will grow up to do great things.” He smiled and hugged me, and we used my grandfather’s words: ”See you later!”
In that moment, I realized how much I had grown in the past year—both as an educator and as an individual—and how much the children had taught me about life.
Play is universal, has no boundaries, and introduces a person to his or her true self. With play, we can imagine the impossible. It has taught me to walk in my own truth but also never to forget to incorporate imagination and creativity when it comes to living life and teaching kids. When I work with children, I remember my grandfather and how he impacted my life and I remember Burke and the way he changed my life. My grandfather and Burke, forever leaving their fingerprints upon my heart.
Watch Darius' TEDx Talk below:
Darius Phelps is the Lead Pre-K teacher at Anderson Elementary in Conley, Ga. Recently named Georgia's Childcare Giver of the Year in 2016, Darius presented aTEDx talk on his journey as an educator titled, "Fingerprints Upon My Heart”.