Play Floats

CJ Kaplan
May 25, 2023

Playmaker Viergeline Felix Ibia shares her story

Vierge’s first memories of playing as a child were of her father taking her and her two brothers to the beach and teaching them how to float. What she didn’t realize at the time was that her dad was using play as a way of preparing them to survive if the boat sank when they eventually fled Haiti.

Vierge, her dad and two of her siblings eventually made the harrowing 100-mile ocean journey from Haiti to Cuba, leaving behind her mother and infant twin brothers who were too young for such a dangerous trip. From Cuba, they made their way to the United States where 5-year-old Vierge settled into her new home in Boston. Despite working incredibly long hours, Vierge’s dad always found time to play with his children. Those were some of the happiest times of her life. 

But the happiness didn’t last.

Vierge’s father died of cancer and with no way of locating Vierge’s mother, she and her two siblings were adopted. Overwhelmed by grief, Vierge acted out in school. She threw tantrums, rolled around out of control on the floor and hit other children. “I lost play when my father died”, she says. “I kind of disappeared inside myself.”

Fortunately, Vierge had Playmakers in her life – teachers who saw the beautiful, brilliant, yet broken little girl hiding behind all that rage. They comforted her with love, guided her with structure and drew her out of her shell through play. When Vierge wasn’t playing, she didn’t talk much. But over a game of Candyland with her therapist, she would open right up.

“Play helped restore what I had lost in the trauma of my childhood. It’s how I developed my inner voice and find what I needed to feel centered again.” 

It was those early transformative relationships that led Vierge to eventually become a first-grade teacher in the Boston Public School system. In her role as an educator, Vierge has worked with many children struggling with traumatic loss. So, when she learned about the Playmaker Project and how our training focused on using the power of play to help children heal from trauma, she immediately signed up to attend a workshop.

The workshop was a game-changer! Among other things, it served to validate what Vierge has always known in her heart – that getting down on the floor and playing with young children is the best way to teach them. A game of Connect Four can be used to teach math. A game of tag can become a science lesson. And a round of musical chairs can help kids learn phonics.

In addition to supporting academic learning, play is helping to draw out Vierge’s most closed off students. Just like it did for her. “We need more teachers who understand the power of play and how we can use it to reach kids who are struggling with their own trauma,” she believes.

Her own Playmakers helped Vierge get through some of the toughest times in her childhood. Now she’s playing it forward.