12 Days that Changed My Life and the Lives of More Than 100 Children and their families – Part 4

Ruth Kaiser, of Spontaneoussmiley.com,
a frequent contributor here at DrGreene.com,
shares her experience as a volunteer on a medical mission to Paraguay with Operation Smile.

I am here to say that play, in and of itself, is enough.

The two American teenagers who accompany every Operation Smile mission are included to educate the children and parents. They learn all about and come prepared with handmade materials to teach everything from tooth brushing to hand washing, from burn prevention to burn care. The idea is that while all these families are waiting, waiting, waiting for their turn at screening and their child’s turn on the operating table, why not put on an educational show for this captive audience.

My understanding is that the Magees, who founded Operation Smile, brought their own kids with them in the early days of going on missions and soon discovered that a couple of kids with nothing to do naturally fell into the role of Play-ologists. But when one goes out seeking funding, can you justify the expense of a couple of teenagers, if play is all they’ll be doing? I imagine the plan for the teens to serve an educational role was cooked up to legitimize their inclusion.

As a life long advocate of play and a witness to what a huge help the play was to the success of this mission*, I know for certain that the teens earn their place even if they don’t teach a single dental hygiene lesson. I, in fact, think that the teaching of the lessons might hinder the relationships they are building with the kids and the parents.

My teens found it awkward and difficult. Both Brendan and Hunter expressed that it felt condescending. Yes, the parents and the kids listened. But jeez, they were being given life changing surgery for free. Of course they listened and smiled. I just wonder what they thought.

I look at the mission with a critiquing eye and think play is enough. But then I think play is enough in many situations. There is endless research showing that play is valuable. Yet we as a society still grill our preschool teachers about what will be the academic curriculum for our 3 year olds and sign our kids up for after school enrichment this and advanced that. I’ve taught preschool for decades. I always tell my parents that our curriculum is kindness. I can say without hesitation, even if a preschool teacher never taught colors and shapes, or letters and numbers, almost every preschooler would pick those things up long before kindergarten any way. And as a parent, my kids were outside playing in the mud not taking pre-algebra.

So my one big piece of advice to Operation Smile is this: chuck the educating component for the teen participants. Play is enough. Really. If you don’t think it’s true, I’ll send you a slew of links to research that backs up my contention!

As parents, as educators, as people interested in a healthy society, we all need to stand up for play. That includes play for kids and play for adults. Have you played lately? If not, how about making play a priority!

Smile. Be happy.
Play. Be happier.


Published on: April 25, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Ruth Kaiser

Ruth Kaiser is a preschool teacher, TED Talk speaker, children's author, AND the creator of the popular online art project SpontaneousSmiley.com where thousands of people find, photograph and share Smiley Faces they find in everyday objects.

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