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Parallel Play

During the 4th of July holiday week my office building was more or less deserted except for program support staff. Hours free of interpersonal interaction found my staring at the shelves perpendicular in the center of my floor. I lamented that I could not complete the task of organizing. Folders slid and stacked with each stoplight in the trunk of my car. There was a vacant desk I could easily move on my own, except for the extra computer that sat on top of it. That computer had a code, needed to be cataloged, accounted for, regardless if it was ever used again. The computer remained so the desk remained so the shelves remained clustered in the center of the room empty of materials. Instead, in a series of empty moments that I supposed could have been called one of my fifteen minute breaks allotted over an eight hour period, I paged through my agenda’s monthly calendar at a glance for July. In one of the weekend spaces from first weeks on the job, I had written “Parallel Play.”

Parallel play. I first came across the term during a storytime outreach program. I had revisited the phrase in a leadership book I had borrowed from a colleague’s overflowing shelves. It remained in my office, in some sense because I felt like content had to even out between us, and others merely as a means to start a conversation. Originally when I reread the excerpt that referenced the developmental stage of human development I believed I would write a more academic post perhaps still musing about Guatemala or my experience with local nonprofit organizations. I had also considered a passionate piece, one more time connecting back to tribal politics. Unfortunately, in the weeks since I made the annotation of a seemingly relevant concept, I had read other works. Susan A. Berger already wrote Guatemaltecas: the Women’s Movement 1986-2003. Irshad Manji already did a rather complete job of what I might have said in Don’t Label Me. Much of this blog’s importance to me is to recommend other reading, so please check out those books and read on and between the parallel lines of text.

So, where had that left me? At work, alone in my office. Despite the added sense of solitude during 4th of July week, much of my experience in my new position already seemed that way. Where did that leave me this Sunday when a blog post is due to be posted? At home, packing a box full of clothes and books for my nephew’s upcoming first birthday and searching for the best description of the term: parallel play.

In between gazing at photos of my nephew combing his hair and sliding noodles through his teeth, I found this one: It isn’t hard to envision two very active babies sitting side by side, chewing, tapping, gurgling, bouncing, wiggling. They are completely engrossed in their task. Their task is a constant. The recognition that someone is alongside them and might actually be worth noticing is absent. Sometimes they imitate, the article states, but the baby is too young to make friends. They are interested in the other, but play alone.

Except for the one year old part, the article describes my office experience so far. Even when I am not alone in my building, I do often feel alone. I take walks through the hall, peaking into offices. I look up each time I hear the faucet or the refrigerator door in the kitchen across from my door. I am interested. The others are not. I mostly play alone. This type of interaction is not confined to my immediate surroundings. As part of my initial work, I schedule meetings and ask questions of others working in similar programming with shared audiences. Again, I stare over at their papers. I attempt to show interest. Only some mildly respond with extended gazes. One or two mention the same disconnect one year olds show cramming blocks into their mouths. This is not to say that parallel play, and solitary play in older children, does not have its place. In fact this article describes its benefits: But, parallel play is a developmental stage and it must progress. Everything starts with talking, with asking questions and giving answers.

Are we really no better than one year olds? That is the humorous question I can ask myself. Are the big gaps between our nestled offices and complimentary programming problematic when we maintain constant movement forward, but our paths never cross? The authors who wrote the academic critiques I mentioned above would say yes. My professional experience would tend to agree.

Even if it lessens after time, the honeymoon period of talking all night fascinated with the person you just met is necessary to be able to decide what you have in common, how to make the relationship work and what pieces of data or history in the end are going to matter in sustaining or ending the relationship. In toddler terms, this would be “cooperative play”. You may read on if you wish:

For me, the takeaway from cooperative play is this, “the division of efforts. . . to reach a common goal”. Academic or child care worker or employee, we must play, together.

By the time my nephew receives his birthday box mailed from thousands of miles away, I hope my materials will have found their permanent places inside shelves, and shelves alongside walls. However, I don’t plan to situate them in parallel lines. I envision the space broken up by nooks and displays. In the meantime, I will sit next to colleagues in a variety of meeting spaces on all matter of topics. I will listen to plans about improvement of the space that stretches wide so that the word “community” may encompass it, until that compass is a wheel of connected spokes that spins support and resources available to cover common ground. I will work until I’m interesting and we all have something to play, or really to talk, about.

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