January 24, 2023
“Peanut butter and…,” called out Playmaker Jake Sullivan, an art teacher at Mystic River Magnet School. “Jelly!” his class responded, turning from their projects to focus on the instructions he was about to give. Later “macaroni and… cheese!” did the trick. Sometimes he uses “Batman and… Robin!”
Mystic River and Charles Barnum Elementary, another school a few miles down the road, both have paintings of the Life is Good Optimism Tree in their front entry (each painted by Jake Sullivan, by the way). The Tree puts the Superpowers on display in its leaves and branches, with optimism providing fuel from its roots. In the Playmaker version, the four pillars of Playmaker Practice – Joy, Internal Control, Active Engagement and Social Connection – feed everything from the soil.
“Playmakers ‘toil in the soil,’ creating safe, loving, joyful, engaging environments where optimism can take root and kids can heal, learn, and grow,” said Ellen Lempereur Greaves, Senior Director of Program & Learning for The Life is Good Playmaker Project.
Jake’s ‘call and response’ technique with his art students, which invites kids to “tune in” in an active and engaged way, is just one example of the ways the four Pillars of Playmaker Practice and the Life is Good Superpowers are on display in both school environments.
“Yes, there were incredible visuals on the walls, and each space felt like true O'Playsis, but that was just a sliver of what made O'Playsis come alive,” said Alicia Barnatchez, Director of Training & Partnerships for The Playmaker Project. O’Playsis, an oasis of play, is a Playmaker term that describes the optimal environment for healing.
Mystic River and Barnum, both located in Connecticut, are Playmaker Partner schools. These are environments where educators and leaders are Playmaker Trained and have access to Superpower Kits, and where Superpowers are infused into Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum and into teaching practices across subjects. Members of the Playmaker Project Team paid a visit to both schools in November.
Art made by students covers the walls in both schools, a teacher at Mystic had placed jokes written on post-it notes throughout the building, and Barnum even has a “Superpowers Song.” Barnum, which is located near a Naval base, sees a lot of transition in its student population each year. With so many new students coming in every year, the song, written by Barnum’s music teacher, Playmaker Matthew Hurrell, offers a great introduction to the Superpowers to new students, and it creates an immediate connection point for the whole community.
Both schools began partnering with The Playmaker Project in September 2018 after Barnum Principal Seth Danner and Mystic River Principal Steve Wheeler attended a two-day Playmaker retreat and decided that training would benefit their whole staff and their communities. In addition to educational activities and classroom integration, the sites employ sustainable practices to ensure continuation and support for staff learning and wellness. On-site Captains at each location are trained to run Playmaker learning opportunities (Boosters) and events (Joyages).
When the team arrived at Barnum during the November visit, several educators and student leaders were donning colorful capes. Seth, who’d selected a red cape that day, explained, “On community meeting days, hosts wear capes.”
These community meetings, or Superpower Assemblies, are entirely student-run. Student leaders, who are nominated by their teachers or peers, host, give out awards, and speak about the ways they have personally embodied that month’s Superpower.
“I think it's an incredible opportunity for the students to be true leaders… the Superpower assembly gives them a platform to be able to do so,” said Alicia. “Giving kids the opportunity to have that voice and choice, to feel connected to each other, and to have joy, and be actively engaged with their peers – that's O'Playsis in action! It’s way more interesting to hear a 2nd grader speak at an assembly than a grownup!”
At Mystic, a group of fifth grade students who had recently organized their school assembly sat down for a conversation with Alicia about the experience. They laughed as they discussed the skits they organized, the costumes and props they used, and the messages they wanted to other kids. And, in very diplomatic fashion, when they were asked to each share which Superpower they identified with, a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors broke out to decide who would share first.
“I wish I had a [wearable] camera to put on each of the Playmakers we encountered because, as we like to say, the little things are the big things,” said Alicia. “The way in which they got down on children's level to speak with them, and the way they greeted the students to the way they PLAYED. The disposition we observed at each site was outstanding and it was incredible to get to see that impact in action.”