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Meet the Playmaker: An interview with Steve Gross

This weekend’s Life is good festival will be a blast, but don’t forget: this is also an event benefiting one of our favorite charities, the Life is good Kids Foundation, which executes the Playmakers Initiative. Playmakers provides training, resources, and support to professionals who work with kids who are dealing with life-threatening challenges such as violence, illness, and extreme poverty. The Playmakers approach: exuberant physical play helps kids heal and recover their sense of joy.

We interviewed Steve Gross, who founded Playmakers under the name Project Joy in 1989, and has dedicated his career to helping kids through play ever since. There’s an art to it, and Steve’s mission is to practice this art and pass on his knowledge to other caring adults.

Q: When did you decide to make a career out of play?

It was just in my nature – it was destined to be no matter what. I think the decision was made for me, probably when I was about six years old.

Q: The Playmakers approach to play therapy sounds pretty unique – how did you encounter it?

The approach evolved over our work with children who had been impacted by very difficult circumstances, in the “world laboratory” of playing with kids and helping them learn and grow. We worked with so many people who have dedicated their lives to helping children grow and thrive, and the artistry came from their experience and passion. Whether they’re artists, dancers, athletes, social workers, psychologists – every person brought something unique to shaping what we do.

Those practical lessons were validated by studying trauma psychology, but the research just proves to us that we’re already doing the right thing!

Q: What is your earliest memory of playing?

I remember building really elaborate tents and forts in the house, especially if I didn’t have anyone to play with. And I remember spending hours in my basement throwing a tennis ball against the wall and imagining that I was a sports star, and I had this whole imaginary fantasy set up where I could be a major league baseball player!

I remember feeling pretty alone at times as a child, so by creating these scenarios and fantasies, by moving my body and by building things, it really helped me to find a safe, joyful, creative outlet.

Q: What are your go-to toys for supporting good play?

My go-to toy is the relationship! Outside of just the human body, any kind of ball is my go-to. You can roll a ball or toss a ball to somebody – if you get down on the ground and you have a ball and you roll it to a child, it creates a feeling that’s like a hug. The experience of sharing a ball creates a connection and an intimacy. That’s why catch is such a universally loved activity.

Q: I know Playmakers has worked with kids affected by terrible natural disasters in the US and abroad – tell me a bit about one of those experiences.

After the earthquake, I was in Haiti, and I would meet lots of children in orphanages.  It was challenging because I don’t speak Creole, and the kids didn’t speak English, so all I could do to communicate with the kids and create a connection was a smile, a “bonjour,” or a high five.

But in a situation like this, you can use something Fred Donaldson calls “original play.” Original play is a combination of wrestling, dance, and theater, where in a very safe way, you use the body for rough-and-tumble play. You might tap a child on the shoulder, and they tap you back, and it almost looks like you’re play-fighting. This lets you connect in a safe, loving way that makes that play connection unforgettable. I remember dancing and roughhousing with these kids and building really deep bonds without words. You show them that you care and want to engage with them. But it’s so important to read their cues, or it can be destructive – they need to feel safe. You have to have some experience and be very careful.

Q: What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited in your work?

The trip I’m on is always the most interesting, because it’s the one that’s happening right now! Obviously, at first, when you step off of a plane and you’re in Katmandu, or Port-Au-Prince, or Istanbul, you get that rush, you feel out of place. But I get the same rush if I get off a plane and I’m in Biloxi, Missouri, or Roxbury, Massachusetts. The novelty of the place wears off quickly, but what’s important is the people and the relationships.

But Haiti was special. It’s one of the most fascinating places I’ve been to – fascinating, beautiful, and sad.

Q: Considering that we’re talking about the Life is good festival – how does music and dance figure into the Playmakers mission?

Music and dance are all about expression and movement, and creativity, and empowerment. And that’s what Playmakers is all about – about ensuring that nothing destroys the playfulness of children. By playfulness, we mean a child’s sense of joy, love, creativity, safety, and empowerment. You’re playing a game and you have music during the game – it adds a shine and a sparkle. There’s a Life is good teeshirt that says “where there’s music there’s love,” and we really believe that!

Q: You’ve been doing Life is good festivals since 2003. Which festival do you think was the best?

My favorite was the first one that we did, that I was involved in, called the Backyard Festival. There was wiffle ball, there was bocce, there was horseshoes, there was running around, obstacle courses, a cookout. It was small, because we didn’t know how to promote it. The numbers were low from a festival standpoint, but from the point of view of the families, it was perfect! This was just a big backyard party. It was the most fun and the least profitable.

Now the trick is – how do you have one that’s incredibly fun and profitable as well? Because the money is going to our work.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at the Boston festival this year? Any favorite musicians?

I’m most excited to interact with children and families, and enjoy watching them and playing with them while they play games and have a blast. I’m not really a hipster when it comes to music – I know the musicians are amazing, but with the exception of Ray Lamontagne, I’m not really familiar with them. I want to see our family, friends, supporters enjoying the day. To me the music is the backdrop for this great play, and fun, and camaraderie. The vibe is the star of the show, the music is the backdrop!

Q: Along with the Festivals, the Playmakers Foundation encourages people to throw their own smaller kid-oriented fundraisers. What a great way to get kids involved in giving! What’s your favorite independent fundraiser you’ve seen so far?

One that I loved was, there was this little girl who decided that she was going to throw a Life is good birthday party, and instead of presents, she only wanted donations to Playmakers, so other kids could have fun too. I love it when you see those little acts of selflessness, of altruism, especially when they’re by children. There’s such simplicity and kindness in that act. That’s what I want to see happen – I want to expand that, and I want to see children who have so much celebrate life at a birthday party, and help other kids to enjoy life and celebrate life.

I really believe that a secret to life is giving, not receiving. People who feel empowered to help others tend to be the happiest, healthiest people on the planet.

 

Want to help the Playmakers Foundation? You and your kids can contribute today by signing up for the Magic Beans Play-A-Thon – read more about it here. And don’t forget to get your tickets for the Life is good Festival through this link – kids go free!

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